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Northland's Partnerships Help Build Regional Workforce
Minnesota Ag Connection - 03/15/2019

Like much of the nation, Minnesota's economic development has been in an upswing. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota added 31,441 jobs in 2018. Of those 34,000 plus jobs, 7,000, or 22% were in the Manufacturing sector. The increase in available jobs coupled with the lowest unemployment rate in over 35 years has made the recruitment of skilled workers challenging.

The surging job market isn't the only employment hurdle manufacturers are facing. High school students have long been programmed to believe that a four-year college is the only acceptable post-secondary option. "The trend has been to encourage kids to follow the traditional college education path and trades and apprenticeships have been overlooked for years," explains Tony Pierce, Grand Forks, N.D., plant manager of the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, "This is a huge factor in the creation of a skills gap that has left manufacturers with a severe shortage in the number of qualified workers to fill our needs."

Manufacturing is emerging into a high-tech industry. Companies have integrated technology into almost every aspect of the manufacturing process in order to boost productivity and manage the quality and consistency of their output. While automation and robotics may mean that less production line workers are necessary, the need for workers with the aptitude to operate and maintain the technology is exponentially increasing. "We are having issues finding employees to fill our maintenance positions," explains Pierce, "It is rare to have a candidate come to us with the necessary technology and fabrication knowledge to slide right into these positions."

Technological change in production methods is the vehicle that is moving the entire industry into greater productivity and profitability. This will ensure that manufacturing will always remain a potent factor in local, regional and national economies.

Companies like Philadelphia Macaroni have turned to other methods to fill their vacancies. In the fall of 2017, Philadelphia Macaroni along with other area manufacturing leaders, American Crystal Sugar, Cirrus Aircraft. LM Windpower, Simplot and Marvin Windows, partnered with Northland Community & Technical College, East Grand Forks, Minn., to develop a curriculum to launch a new manufacturing process technology program. This 60 credit A.A.S. degree is geared toward meeting regional industry demands. "Northland was extremely receptive to creating this program to help us fill our workforce needs," states Pierce, "The curriculum is great. It is focused on the mechanical aspects of the job. We needed individuals to be able to troubleshoot, find the solution, and implement the fix."

With the new program in place, Philadelphia Macaroni established a scholarship incentive to entice current employees to advance their skill set and career. The company pays for all tuition, books, and fees in exchange for the recipient's part-time employment while enrolled in the program, sufficient grades, and commitment to continued employment with the company for two years following graduation. "Our goal has been to award two scholarships each year to have continual prospects in the pipeline," explains Pierce, "So far it's been really successful for us."

This program isn't unique to Northland, however. Part of Northland's mission is to foster relationships with local communities and industry partners. Regularly collaborating with industry partners helps gauge where there are deficits in the local workforce. This can have an effect on Northland's educational programming. Brian Huschle, Northland Provost explains, "These relationships help ensure that graduates have the skills to be successful and advance in their careers upon graduation from our programs. Partnerships also directly serve our industry partners by helping to develop the workforce thus contributing to the strength of the local economy"

Digi-Key Electronics, a global electronics components distributor in Thief River Falls, Minn., also offers a tuition reimbursement program for employees interested in pursuing a degree in electronics technology and automated systems or a business-related degree at Northland. Other area companies such as Crystal Sugar, Marvin Windows, and Simplot have invested in tuition reimbursement programs for employees willing to further their education in the Manufacturing field.

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