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Senator Amy Klobuchar's team discusses workforce development with Bemidji leaders

Members of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s team met with community and education leaders on Wednesday at Northwest Technical College to detail legislative efforts regarding workforce development.

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Participants listen to a pre-recorded video of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar detailing current legislation addressing workforce shortages during a roundtable event on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at Northwest Technical College.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Members of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s team met with community and education leaders on Wednesday at Northwest Technical College to detail legislative efforts regarding workforce development.

Though she wasn't able to join in person, in a pre-recorded video Klobuchar explained current legislation that addresses workforce shortages and apprenticeship disparities for trade careers across the state.

“There are more than 205,000 job vacancies across Minnesota, a record high over the past few decades,” Klobuchar said. “And in a 2021 State of Manufacturing report, nine out of 10 manufacturers said it was difficult to find workers with the right skills and experience.”

A bipartisan apprenticeship bill as part of a Competition and Manufacturing Package recently passed the House and secured funding to expand access to manufacturing training across the state.

Other bills in the current legislative session will aim to increase women’s participation in apprenticeships for male-dominated trade careers, increase skills training opportunities and allow workers to earn college credits for completed apprenticeships.

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Klobuchar shared a 2019 study by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute that showed every dollar spent on apprenticeship programs in Minnesota increases the state’s Gross Domestic Product by $21.

“I know these kinds of investments are going to make a world of difference for our economy, our businesses and our workers,” Klobuchar added.

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Rommel Lee, outreach director for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, welcomes participants to a roundtable discussion about workforce development on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at NTC.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

In approaching workforce development, Klobuchar’s outreach director Rommel Lee emphasized the multiple layers of issues to consider when seeking to fill vacant positions with qualified workers.

“When we’re talking workforce development, skills training is a huge part of it,” Lee said. “But, it’s a multifaceted issue where we have a holistic approach taking into account child care, housing and immigration as well.”

Child care

Detailing NTC’s Early Childhood Education program, President Faith Hensrud discussed challenges relating to salaries and child care affordability.

“It is challenging to attract students to the profession when the salaries are so low, and it’s also challenging for parents to pay high rates for child care,” Hensrud said. “So it’s this vicious cycle that’s extremely challenging.”

In reference to her newest granddaughter, Hensrud stated that it would be cheaper to send her to a year of college than to send her to child care in the Twin Cities.

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Faith Hensrud, Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College president, speaks during a discussion about workforce development with members of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s team on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at NTC.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Klobuchar detailed the nonpartisan Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act that aims to educate and retain child care workers as well as expand child care facilities in rural areas.

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Child Care and Education is the largest program as part of Bemidji Career Academies, which creates opportunities for students and business partners to collaborate and prepare future generations of employees.

“(Child Care and Education students) partner with the Boys and Girls Club to work with teachers and students after school. They just love working with kids,” Bemidji Career Academies Executive Director Brian Stefanich said. “I know a lot of these kids are going to be teachers.”

The Bemidji Career Academies offers 15 different pathways of career exploration including business, automotive technology, construction and health careers.

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Bemidji Career Academies Executive Director Brian Stefanich, speaks during a discussion about workforce development with members of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s team on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at NTC.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Workforce needs

Hensrud hopes to expand the application pool of nursing graduates in the area, adding “at this time, we can’t produce enough nursing graduates here at NTC and BSU to meet the needs just in Bemidji.”

She cited that BSU limits nursing class enrollment to 60 students not only because of limits on equipment and clinical placements, but also staffing issues.

“We have four open positions in our nursing department and we’re not sure if we’ll be able to land even one,” Vice President of Academic Affairs Allen Bedford added. “Compensation is an issue, location can be an issue and the demands of the position are so high.”

Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel discussed a 200-truck driver shortage in the Bemidji area with a lack of potential employees having commercial driver’s licenses.

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“That is true across every industry across every sector of our economy in northern Minnesota,” Hengel said. “Right now, there are just over 1,000 posted available jobs in Bemidji. To add to that, we have roughly 1,000 unemployed people in Beltrami County. There’s a disconnect.”

Hengel emphasized that current worker shortages have been projected for years and that it’s not exclusively a pandemic-related issue.

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Sarah Behrens, coordinator of schools and industry partnerships at Northwest Technical College, speaks during a discussion about workforce development with members of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s team on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at NTC.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Hensrud and Sarah Behrens, coordinator of schools and industry partnerships at NTC, seek to address mental health needs and training throughout the region, particularly for students and employees who may have been impacted by the pandemic.

“All fourth-year RN students at NTC are enrolled in mental health first aid,” Behrens said. “It’s important to have the appropriate resources when someone is experiencing a mental health challenge, and there are many positive things to come from training around mental health.”

Moving forward

With feedback gathered, Klobuchar’s team looks ahead to advocate for greater workforce development for Bemidji and the surrounding region.

“There are pockets of untapped potential when it comes to our workforce,” Lee said. “Every 30 miles, we see signs saying ‘welder wanted’ or ‘mechanic needed,’ so building our workforce is clearly a need across the entire state.”

Continuing efforts to work across the aisle, Klobuchar emphasized that workforce development is a common goal that everyone can work towards.

“We all share the same goal of making sure workers have the skills they need to succeed,” Klobuchar said. “This will help our state’s businesses succeed, and thus, help our state succeed.”

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BSU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Allen Bedford listens to pre-recorded video of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar explaining current legislation addressing workforce shortages during a roundtable event on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at NTC.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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