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Doug Loon

Workforce shortage demands full-court press

Minnesota is recognized for its talented workforce. We view it as the secret sauce that drives the economy. It’s at the foundation of making Minnesota ready for the future – ready for change and ready to grow.

But our state’s chief advantage is showing stress. Companies of all sizes and types across the state are increasingly challenged to find skilled workers. It’s the No. 1 concern shared during our Grow Minnesota! visits, the distinctive economic development program carried out by the Minnesota Chamber and our nearly 70 partners.

Fixing the problem demands new approaches. The Minnesota Chamber is doing as much via private-sector business initiatives as we’re doing via public policy. Our legislative efforts tend to focus on younger people in K-12 systems. Our business initiatives focus on individuals in or just ready to enter the workforce. There the challenge is to get all trainers to better understand the needs and to shape programs based on what’s happening in the local economy.

The good news is that we’ve seen an increase in the percentage of Greater Minnesota companies adding jobs during the past year. The bad news is that 71 percent of businesses report difficulty finding workers.

The challenge is no surprise to employers in northwestern Minnesota, as witnessed by newspaper headlines: Fargo Forum, “Career workforce academy idea offers real promise.” Grand Forks Herald, “New campaign to boost workforce calls Grand Forks ‘cooler’ place to be.” Crookston Times, “Crookston City Council – Priorities discussion never strays far from jobs and housing.”

Finding solutions requires persistent conversations among all the stakeholders. Once-a-year “job summits” won’t produce long-lasting solutions. What’s needed and what the Minnesota Chamber is doing is implementing a strategy that’s equal parts public policy and private-sector initiative.

We count among our 2017 legislative successes important reforms toward building the K-12 portion of the workforce pipeline. The new youth training skill program will allow high school-aged students to participate in manufacturing internships and apprenticeships. Scholarships are available for students attending Minnesota State two-year programs of high employment need. Reforms to K-12 teacher licensure and teacher layoff rules will strengthen the goal of placing effective instructors in all classrooms.

Immigration reform is at the forefront of federal efforts. The future strength of our economy depends on attracting and integrating immigrants into the workforce. Without a substantial increase in migration – from neighboring states or from around the world – our economic growth will be slowed.

Public policy successes will not alone solve our worker shortage. Employers must step to the plate. On that front, we are involved in a variety of initiatives.

We recently launched Job Match. This new system, operated in partnership with RealTime Talent, uses statistically validated questions to connect candidates and employers based on skills, interests and job requirements rather than relying on keyword counts in a resume.

We are challenging employers to change their hiring strategies and cast a broader net. “Hidden Talent Pools,” an event we hosted this spring, explored available workers whom employers have overlooked or underused. We showcased employers that have hired successfully and productively from these pools – pools that include individuals with physical and mental disabilities or those with criminal convictions.

We’ll make limited headway in supplying employers with qualified employees in the absence of new collaborations. One of our most shining examples at the Minnesota Chamber is Business Education Networks, a proactive approach to better synchronize workforce skills with the needs of the changing economy.

Our pilot project was launched in 2015 with the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce. Winona, home to 100-plus manufacturers, struggles to find qualified applicants for a variety of high-demand manufacturing job opportunities. The project has made great strides through a variety of initiatives. We’ve expanded Business Education Networks to Brainerd and Waconia and hope to replicate the program in other communities where we can find local partners.

The strategy behind Business Education Networks mobilizes our state’s employers – the players with the most at stake in ensuring Minnesota’s workforce is well prepared. Building these networks will help narrow the skills gap, plus encourage students from all backgrounds to complete education in areas where they will have opportunity for meaningful employment. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Doug Loon

President

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce

dloon@mnchamber.com

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