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North Central door fabricator Douglas John IronNecklace shows U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., how easy it is to slide a garage door panel down an assembly line on Tuesday afternoon. Klobuchar took a tour of the business followed by a meeting with local business and civic leaders on workforce development issues. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Working on workforce: Klobuchar tours manufacturer, discusses workforce development issues

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BEMIDJI — Bemidji has the jobs. What it needs is workers.

That’s the message U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., heard Tuesday afternoon at a roundtable discussion with local and area business and civic leaders.

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To be exact, the Bemidji area needs skilled workers, those who can step in to help area businesses, mainly in the manufacturing sector, sustain and grow their companies.

Klobuchar and local leaders took a tour of garage door manufacturer North Central Door in Bemidji as part of Tuesday’s events. After the tour, the group talked of the successes Bemidji has had in developing workforce development strategies, as well as the challenges still ahead.

About 60 percent of manufacturers in Minnesota are reporting job openings, and as the state and national economy rebounds, those jobs are critical in sustaining progress, said Klobuchar, who was joined on the tour by state Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

While Minnesota’s unemployment rate is at about 4.6 percent, the unemployment rate in Bemidji is higher, at about 6.5 percent. That’s down from the double-digit numbers of years past, but still highlights the need for workforce development in the area, local officials said.

Several business leaders told Klobuchar the skills gap of incoming workers can limit them in production and also in expansion. Increasingly, incoming manufacturing jobs are not simply manual labor positions. Workers need a solid base in mathematics, science and basic technology skills just to be able to do the job.

And with those advances in technology, it’s not just the new hires who need training, it’s also current staff who need to upgrade their skills every few years.

Job skills training at the high school and secondary education levels, including apprenticeships, were also discussed Tuesday, as well as directing more female workers to be involved in manufacturing.

While she didn’t spend much time on it Tuesday, Klobuchar, along with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced the Innovate America Act in the Senate, a bipartisan bill she said addresses some of those needs, especially in further funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-focused high schools.

Working together

Several business leaders referenced the success of the Minnesota Innovation Institute, a locally driven project that is working with Northwest Technical College and BSU to develop job training programs that will directly benefit local employers.

Also highlighted was the 360° Manufacturing and Applied Engineering ATE Regional Center of Excellence at BSU that also is working to develop job development programs at the high school and college levels.

Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, said the school district is partnering with those programs, he said, because the “No. 1 export of Bemidji shouldn’t be our kids,” who go to other communities for jobs and opportunities.

After the meeting, Klobuchar said what Bemidji area leaders are doing in developing local initiatives can serve as a model for not just Minnesota, but for communities around the country.

“That was very positive,” she said. “Bemidji is doing so well; they are really on the cutting edge to develop the jobs programs.”

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