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Sen. Al Franken: Getting back to work, investing in our future

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This week, as manufacturers across the state celebrate Minnesota Manufacturing Week – a time to recognize one of our state’s most vibrant and innovative sectors – they face an emerging challenge.  While the economy is slowly improving and creating good-paying, high-skilled jobs, many manufacturers cannot find employees with the right skills to fill them.

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The challenge reminds us that in this increasingly competitive world, U.S. industry leaders and policy makers must to work together to produce enough well-trained workers to enable employers to continue to expand and innovate. In short, without action to better prepare our work force for 21st Century jobs, we’ll be left behind.

Our state’s manufacturers employ nearly 300,000 Minnesotans, and manufacturing exports brought over $18 billion into Minnesota’s economy last year. And our manufacturers lead the nation in the design and production of incredible high-tech products like airplane components, computers, electronic products, and medical devices.

But a report by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development showed that about half of the state’s manufacturers said they had positions they couldn’t fill. That means these companies can’t grow as much as they should be able to, and it means our economy suffers as a result.

Earlier this month, I visited Heraeus Medical Components in White Bear Lake, where I talked to the general manager, Keith Foerster. He said that Heraeus should be able to expand and increase production – and create even more jobs – but they just don’t have enough qualified applicants.

I’ve heard the same thing from manufacturers all over the state: they just don’t have enough qualified applicants to keep growing.

And while we need to invest in training our existing workforce, we also need to invest in education so that tomorrow’s workers– our students – are ready to join this high-tech economy when they’re done with school.

I’ve been going around to schools across the state – high schools, junior highs, and middle schools. I bring manufacturers with me to talk to the kids and tell them that much of today’s manufacturing is not dark, dirty, and dangerous, and that there are good paying, high skilled jobs waiting for them where they can be creative, work with their hands, and design cutting-edge products.

One way to make sure our students are prepared to lead the world is to educate them in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. Sixteen of the 20 fastest-growing jobs in Minnesota require STEM skills, but our kids are falling behind in many of these key areas. That’s why, as a member of the Senate education committee, I’ve been doing everything I can to strengthen STEM programs for our nation’s students.

But it’s important that we educate our kids outside the classroom as well. Last year, in Bemidji, I had the chance to meet with Andy Wells at Wells Technology. Andy started something called the “Wells Academy,” a unique program that works with kids from Red Lake High School to give them access to apprenticeships – including two hours of hands-on training every day – while they’re still in high school.

The goal is to get these kids connected to the business community, and to get them the skills they need to succeed. It’s good for Andy because he can count on a steady supply of smart, educated, local students coming out of school ready to work. And, of course, it’s good for students because they’re qualified for a great career in manufacturing the moment they’re done with school.

In order to make sure our nation’s economy can continue to lead the world in the decades to come, we need to invest in our workforce. We need to invest in education so our kids have the tools they need to enter the job market and start a successful career. And we need to invest in workforce development programs so that people who are looking for work can get the training they need for the jobs that are available right now.

People interested in a manufacturing career can learn more by visiting dreamitdoitmn.com or the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s website, www.MNManufacturingCareers.org.

Al Franken is one of Minnesota’s two U.S. senators.

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