The Brainerd lakes area workforce is thriving, but employers are still facing unmet workforce needs.

That's why Central Lakes College and Minnesota State, the system of state colleges and universities of which CLC is a part, hosted a roundtable discussion Friday, Aug. 24, to talk about the good things being done already to address these needs and brainstorm future partnership opportunities.

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With more than a dozen regional business and industry leaders, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and CLC President Hara Charlier heard feedback from the group, which included principals and superintendents from area school districts, business owners, community organizations and a legislator. Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, led the roundtable.

"Conversations about current and impending talent shortages in Minnesota are becoming more urgent and are increasing in scope," Malhotra said. "The colleges and universities of Minnesota State, including Central Lakes College, have a critical role to play in meeting this shortage, but to do so, we must deepen and enhance our partnerships with the community so that we better understand workforce needs. No longer are colleges and universities able to operate in an insular way."

Instead, it takes collaboration with high schools, area business and industry leaders and more, he said.

The group talked about the region's deep connection to CLC and touched on a few ideas to expand partnerships.

"CLC knocks it out of the park. They have incredible workforce numbers," said Chet Bodin, a labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Within two years, their students are exceeding the median wage of the region."

One challenge is the aging workforce, said Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore. He pointed to aging farmers and said he works closely with CLC's Dean of Agriculture Keith Olander to address that issue.

That issue is present in many areas, including health care, said Adam Rees, president of Essentia Health's central region. Rees said each of the region's health care facilities are facing the same problem: A large group of nurses and other providers will retire in five years and there's not enough providers coming in to fill those shoes.

Part of the issue is the need for continuing education for health care staff, Rees said. To advance their education with a bachelor's or master's degree, they must leave the area.

Another gap is education hasn't been keeping up with the industry's needs and demands, said Mike Schmidt, principal of Staples-Motley High School.

"Families are assuming these partnerships are happening," Schmidt said. "I'm ready to take action. We are ready to partner with CLC."

Bart Graves, who works in college and career readiness at Sourcewell, said, "We know what works in education. The question is how do we implement it?"

He added businesses, colleges and high schools have to work together to help expose student to many career fields early on.

Staples-Motley Superintendent Ron Bratlie said one barrier is high schools want to keep their students in the high school, versus sending them to a college for advanced education, so they don't lose out on funding.

Poston said that is one issue he hopes the Legislature will look at in the near future, with feedback and input from K-12 leaders.

Laine Larson, superintendent of the Brainerd School District, said she and Charlier have been talking and dreaming about the two institutions expanding collaborations since before they first started in their positions two years ago. Through partnering with CLC and other businesses, the goal is to be a model for the state of Minnesota, Larson said.

On the business side, Steve Christiansen, vice president of Ascensus, said he would welcome more opportunities to come to CLC's campus and talk about how the information technology field is changing. He also suggested getting more businesses to participate in the college's many advisory committees.

"The key is to expose kids to the spectrum of jobs we have available here. ...We need to get back on the campuses (high school and college level) and show them what we have," Christiansen said. "Get us in the door. We want to help."

Cheryal Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Commission, brought up a few other issues plaguing the region: Lack of affordable housing, a child care shortage and the lack of a diverse population.

Malhotra thanked the group for their input and ensured each comment would be brought back and discussed.

"CLC is the catalyst for this region for the talent it needs and the workforce," he said. "It is also a portal to a broader set of institutions across the state, should something be needed by an employer here that CLC can't accommodate."

Malhotra's visit to the Brainerd lakes area was part of a tour around the state to engage local business and education leaders about ways they can work together more effectively to address unmet workforce needs. Thursday, Malhotra participated in a discussion hosted by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce. Additional visits are being planned for other regions of the state in October and November.