Weather Forecast


Franken touts federal workforce bill: Says bipartisan legislation will help skills gap in Minnesota

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on Wednesday showcased a bill intended to help narrow the job skills gap in Minnesota and nationwide that passed with bipartisan support the same day.

In a phone interview, Franken noted the root law that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act reforms has not been reauthorized by Congress since 1998.

"It took the Great Recession to wake everyone up," he said. "We saw a lot of people graduating with a four-year degree having nowhere to go, having no job."

The bill cuts 15 existing federal workforce programs viewed as superfluous, and sets aside 15 percent of funding at the state level rather than going directly to local programs in order to give states more control over how money is allocated. It also unites all workforce development programs under one success-measurement system.

Then, there's the provision that Franken said he was "very excited about": encouraging programs between businesses and community/technical colleges. The bill requires local workforce boards to assess the needs of area employers and map out to the federal government how they're going to meet those needs.

"There are over 3 million jobs (nationwide) that could be filled if employers could find the people with the right skills," Franken said Wednesday, echoing a speech he made on the Senate floor in support of the bill.

An emphasis on trade jobs will aid Minnesota and America's competition against companies abroad, Franken said. Many Americans view a two-year tech degree as unideal, Franken said, but that attitude isn't shared with the rest of the world.

"A lot of parents and students look at a two-year, community technical college education as a ceiling, when it isn't at all -- it's a pathway," he said. "They know that in countries like Germany."

He referenced an April article in the Pioneer where some employers looking for job applicants at a career fair had to be turned away due to lack of space.

Several public-private programs are already in motion to specifically address the skills gap in Bemidji, including the Minnesota Innovation Institute (MI2), as well as programs at both Northwest Technical College and BSU.

In addition, the Greater Bemidji economic development group has been working to house MI2 at the former Mayflower building with the goal of incubating business startups and strengthening ties between business and local colleges.

When asked about other tech training programs in Minnesota, Franken mentioned Larry Lundblad, president of Central Lakes College in Brainerd, who Franken invited to the State of Union address in 2013. He also mentioned Northland Community Technical College in Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks, which he said has been doing "great work" on preparing students to work with unmanned aerial systems, or UAS.

Franken said he has not yet visited Northwest Technical College.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed the Senate in late June and the House on Wednesday. It now goes to President Obama to sign into law.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
(218) 333-9791