by LAURA HAYES
Across Minnesota, employers are having difficulty finding workers prepared to enter the workforce. “Minnesota has a serious workforce shortage,” Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Advocacy Laura Bordelon said. It’s in almost every job sector, she explained — manufacturing, health care, and hospitality, for example.
But here in Winona, a new initiative led by business and education leaders aims to change that trend. The program, which is expected to spread statewide, gives high school students valuable work experience and college credit. When the students graduate from high school, they will either have a job offer in hand or a head start on their higher education path.
In 2015, the Minnesota Chamber took steps to address this issue by focusing its efforts on the people who will be entering the workforce in a couple years — students. “They realized that this is not an issue we can solve through legislation and policy, but rather we have to solve through a more hands-on manner,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Della Schmidt said.
Bordelon explained that statewide, older workers are retiring and freeing up positions for incoming workers. Schmidt said that in Winona, there are numerous jobs available — some that don’t require more than a high school degree — but potential employees do not have the needed skills. “We wanted to engage employers directly with kids,” Bordelon said. The benefit, Bordelon added, is students exposed to careers in their community that they have not considered before.
After receiving two grants, the Minnesota Chamber launched the Business-Education Networks initiative and selected Winona to be the pilot location. “We chose [Winona] for very specific reasons,” Bordelon said. It has exceptional chamber leadership, a concentration of manufacturers, and a similar workforce shortage, she explained.
After being chosen the pilot location, the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce expanded some of its current initiatives such as “CEO in the Classroom” and a career expo that features numerous local employers and offers a number of other programs to connect students to local jobs. However, Schmidt said one of the chamber’s most ambitious projects is the REACH academy. The REACH academy is a partnership between the Chamber and Winona Area Public Schools, and the program is designed to prepare students to thrive in the workforce.
REACH officially launched this school year. Thirty Winona Senior High School (WSHS) and Winona Area Learning Center students are enrolled in the two-year program. WSHS Principal Mark Anderson said the program has had a wonderful start. Some of the students who struggled in the past are more engaged in school, he said.
Throughout their time in the academy, students take classes to help them learn professional skills such as how to interview well, write a resume or cover letter, and start a conversation. Additionally, the students also take technical courses to teach them how to read and develop blueprints and render blueprints into 3D objects. By the end of the program, the students will have earned a semester of college credit through Minnesota State College — Southeast Technical.
REACH is designed to both provide the needed skills to participant and introduce them to the tools they will need to begin successful careers. “It’s not enough anymore for a person to apply for a job or for a business to interview someone — it’s about skills alignment,” Schmidt said.
Starting in November, the students will break into teams of three to shadow jobs at local manufacturing companies. Throughout the program, students will have the opportunity to earn money through paid internships or work-study opportunities. “Our stated commitment to the REACH students is that if they do their part, our commitment is that the day they graduate, they will have a job offer in hand for Monday morning or their career pathway for finishing their continuing education,” Schmidt said.
Recently, the program was awarded $81,000 from the Otto Bremer Trust based in St. Paul, Minn. Additionally, seven local companies — Miller Ingenuity, Benchmark Electronics, Peerless Chain, Fastenal, RTP, ZF TRW, and WinCraft — invested $41,000 in the program. “It’s really a validation that we’re on the right path,” Schmidt said. She added that staff have been careful with their resources and have bought items — such as curriculum — that can be used for the next several years. The funds will go toward providing transportation, meals, work-appropriate attire, and team-building exercises. Additionally, REACH leaders are looking for a van to help transport students.
“Our focus is on making sure that students have a deeper understanding of what career opportunities are out there for them,” Schmidt said. Currently, REACH is focusing on careers in manufacturing, but Schmidt added that it may include different industries in the future.
“We’re really excited about the work going on in Winona,” Bordelon said. She hopes that REACH can be replicated statewide over the next several years. Bordelon said that a similar program has already started in Brainerd, Minn. Instead of focusing on manufacturing careers, Brodelon said the Brainerd program focuses on jobs in the hospitality industry.
Schmidt also believes that the program can be replicated statewide. Her advice for other chambers? Start out with a reasonable program. “You have to have your partnerships in place. It can’t be done without strong partnerships,” Schmidt added. “I’m excited to see where this can go. I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what REACH can be in Winona.”