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In Winona, Minn., high-school students in the REACH program get hands-on experience at a variety of local manufacturers. IMAGE: Winona Area Chamber

Chamber partnership in Winona, Minn., sets out to solve workforce shortage

The schools that are crowded with students are over here. The manufacturers that desperately need workers are over there.

And ne’er the two shall meet.

Except in Winona, Minn., that is.

Because there, they’re now meeting all the time.

In partnership with the Minnesota Chamber, the Winona Area Chamber is bringing CEOs into classrooms, students and teachers into factories and everybody into the local technical college for a huge annual career fair.

The purpose? To ease Winona’s workforce shortage – not with student and teacher labor, but by showing students the terrific opportunities that await them, just down the street.

“These manufacturing facilities – they’re not dark and dirty any more,” said Della Schmidt, president of the Winona Area Chamber.

“Instead, they’re full of robots, they’re full of touch screens. It’s really high-tech, super cool stuff.”  

That’s news to most students, as are facts such as these: You know the ball – the 11,875-pound ball – that’s lowered in Times Square on New Year’s Eve?

The winch doing the work hails from Thern Inc., a Winona-based winch and crane maker. And Thern’s just one of 100-plus manufacturers in Winona, pop. 27,000.

“Remember, this is a generation that’s growing up with more technology in their phones than we had on the rockets to the moon,” Schmidt said.

“We want to show the students that not only do these facilities use that technology in amazing ways, but also, that there are things being made in Winona, Minnesota, that have global reach.”

The partnership has its origins in an economic emergency: Minnesota’s workforce shortage, said Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

“We have 2,300 members, and we know they’ve experienced a real crush on workforce for years,” Bordelon said.

But it’s different now. It’s worse: “Back then, they were having trouble finding skilled workers,” she said.

“Now, they can’t find any workers. We simply don’t have enough people to help us fill the jobs we have available, let alone the jobs we could be creating if we had the people to staff up.”

The partnership with Winona is an effort to solve the problem, vs. waiting for schools, colleges and legislators to get the job done, Bordelon said.

Using $400,000 in grant money from the Bush and Carlson Family foundations, the chambers developed a pilot project called Business Education Network. The organizations launched it in 2015, and results now are coming into view.

The key components include:

  • CEO in the Classroom. This program, which invites executives to speak with eighth-graders about high school and the road ahead, “was already in place,” Schmidt said.

But thanks to the partnership, “we expanded it.

“Now, we’re in every eighth-grade classroom at some point during the year, and not only in Winona but also within a 40-mile radius.”

The execs often start by asking the students, How much does it cost to live on your own?

“The typical answer is $1,000 a month,” Schmidt said.

“These students think, ‘If I made $1,000 a month, woo-hoo!’”

After that, the execs walk the students through a more realistic budget. They point out how much more than $1,000 a month many Winona-area jobs pay, and exactly what the students must do in high school to prepare.

“We cover all of the social stuff, too: Don’t get pregnant, don’t do drugs, watch your reputation,” Schmidt said.

“We talk about the importance of math and science, of being part of a team. The whole idea is to say, ‘You have the next four years to lay a foundation. But they’re going to go fast, so here’s what you need to do.’”

  • Teacher in the Workplace. “In this program, we take high-school teachers and put them in private-sector manufacturing businesses in the summer, for one to two weeks,” Schmidt said.

The teachers get paid. But that’s not the point, and neither is the teachers’ labor.

Instead, the point is to show the teachers what’s out there. “These are teachers, many of whom have always been in academia,” Schmidt said.

“So, many have no idea what happens in manufacturing.” But the more they learn, the better able they are to advise and prepare students.

A side benefit: When an Industrial Tech teacher worked at one manufacturing facility, “we discovered something,” Schmidt said.

“We discovered that the technology in our high school’s Industrial Tech area is so antiquated, it’s no longer even relevant to what’s happening in business.”

The news brought a donation, and the high school’s tech area now boasts a $40,000 piece of computer numerical control, or CNC, equipment.

“It has been my experience that when a local chamber is working on the issues that are most important to its members, the members will be happy to write the checks to make things happen,” Schmidt said.

  • High School Career Expo. Five years ago, Winona’s Career Expo drew people from three high schools and about 30 businesses.

But in recent years, “we’ve had to take over the entire campus of our technical college, Minnesota State College Southeast,” said Sue Pronschinske, HR director for chamber member Thern Inc. in Winona.

Some 18 school districts now are taking part, busing in upwards of 2,000 students to talk with more than 100 companies.

“And what’s great is that having it on campus means the students’ experience is hands-on,” Pronschinske said.

As the high schoolers explore the campus, the college’s faculty and students stand by. Prospective truck drivers can climb in and out of the school’s semis, aspiring nurses can take manikins’ vital signs, and so on.

“Even the tech school is upgrading as a result,” Pronschinske said.

“It takes all of these elements being in place for the Business Education Network to work.”

  • REACH. The partnership’s most ambitious project, REACH gives 30 Winona High School juniors a two-year immersion experience in manufacturing and tech careers.  

The 30 will become 60 next year, when REACH will add a second program focusing on health and human services careers.

“REACH is a three-legged stool,” Schmidt said.

“The first leg is soft skills and career readiness. It is facilitated by business professionals; we come into the classroom, and we make sure students understand the basics – shaking hands, looking people in the eye.”

The second leg is dual-credit classes, which the students take during their senior year. After studying blueprints, computer-assisted design, precision machining and other subjects, the students can graduate with a semester of college credit, Schmidt said.

The third leg involves multiple field trips to local manufacturers, as well as paid internships.

This is REACH’s first year, so nobody’s being hired yet, said Tom Wynn. He’s the retired president and CEO of Peerless Chain in Winona, the largest chain maker in North America and one of the largest in the world.

“But I am extremely optimistic, because we are planting the seeds,” Wynn said. Thirty students will become 60, and 60 will become 120 before long.

That’ll give Winona an ever-growing cohort of career-ready graduates, all of whom also will be up-to-date the region’s opportunities, he said.

The Minnesota Chamber is so impressed, it’s expanding the partnerships to other communities, including Brainerd.

“They have a slightly different take there, because Brainerd’s acute worker shortage is in the hospitality industry,” said Bordelon, the state chamber’s senior vice president.

“It’s a resort community, and they have these wonderful, legacy, family-run resorts that are have some real needs in terms of workers.”

Luckily, hospitality is a big field, Bordelon said. So, Brainerd’s REACH program can expose students to finance, event planning, marketing, recreation management and multiple other careers.

“Our goal is to solve the workforce problem, not just study it,” Bordelon said.

“In Winona, employers already are identifying students they’d like to hire, and more and more students are seeing exciting career opportunities right in their hometown.

“That’s a good day in this workforce environment. It really is.”   

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business