PEQUOT LAKES - Continued funding and support from state legislators for apprenticeship programs are what local manufacturing companies feel they need to keep growing.

Those are the ideas Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, heard during his Workforce Development and Jobs Tour when he stopped at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins Thursday, Nov. 7.

After discussing how Brainerd High School’s ProStart culinary program is preparing kids for the hospitality industry, Anderson traveled north to Pequot Tool to learn more about how the state government can aid manufacturers in their hunt for skilled workers.

“We want to be partners, and we want to be helpful. We don’t want to be hurtful,” Anderson said to the room full of manufacturers, educators and business community members. “And so the more we can do to set things up and get out of the way, in my mind, the better.”

Debby Hoel, human resources manager at Pequot Tool, kicked off the roundtable discussion by talking about the Lakes Area Manufacturing Alliance, a group underneath the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce focused on workforce development and recruiting younger workers to the manufacturing industry. A big problem the organization is working to overcome, Hoel said, is the workforce shortage in manufacturing companies.

The Lakes Area Manufacturing Alliance works to combat that issue through several events throughout the year, including Bridges Career Exploration Day, a collaborative event with Bridges Career Academy. The annual event showcases more than 200 regional high-demand careers with hands-on demonstrations, simulators and breakout sessions for high school students. Next year’s exploration day is set for March at Central Lakes College and is expected to draw more than 2,700 students.

“What’s cool about the career exploration day is … if you pay attention to the kids and you look at their eyes, you know there’s a moment for some of those kids that it’s literally life-changing and career-altering, what they’re experiencing that day,” Matt Kilian, Brainerd chamber president, said Thursday.

Though that sort of epiphany happened at a later stage in life than high school, Dane Walter and Chris Bolstad know exactly what it’s like to experience that career-altering moment.

Both men are participants in Pequot Tool’s apprenticeship program, which trains both incumbent and new employees to help retain and continue to educate current workers while also opening the door for those new to the industry.

The apprenticeship program is the result of a grant the Minnesota PIPELINE (private investment, public education, labor and industry experience) program.

Neither Walter nor Bolstad thought about the manufacturing field when they joined the workforce. Walter planned to go into law enforcement, while Bolstad has a master’s degree in music education and worked as a high school and college music instructor for many years. But both men decided a change was in order -- for various reasons -- when they began to settle down and start families.

“The foundation work that the high schools and the colleges provide are great, but here you’re on the frontline where the game is changing at all times,” Walter said. “And if we don’t up our game to change, then we fall behind. And that’s a great advantage of being a part of an apprenticeship inside a company.”

Pequot Tool employee Chris Bolstad talks about his transition into the manufacturing field, which was helped by the company's apprenticeship program, during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, Thursday, Nov. 7. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Pequot Tool employee Chris Bolstad talks about his transition into the manufacturing field, which was helped by the company's apprenticeship program, during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, Thursday, Nov. 7. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Nick Christensen, a Pequot Tool employee who helps train those in the apprenticeship program, has a similar story. He started out as a cabinet maker, but ended up at Pequot Tool after seeing an ad in the newspaper when considering a different career path. He enrolled at CLC in Staples to begin learning about the field before coming to work at Pequot Tool.

“This PIPELINE grant feeds upon itself. I’m getting all this training, and I can turn right around and start training other people,” Christensen said, noting the apprenticeship program would not be possible without the PIPELINE grant, and Pequot Tool, in turn, would not have as strong a workforce.

“I think it’s a limiting factor if a company doesn’t have the ability to hire someone off the street,” he added. “If they’ve gotta wait for a qualified candidate, that means their company is not growing at the speed it should be growing.”

Career and technical education

While hiring off the street, so to speak, is now possible for Pequot Tool, it isn’t a luxury all manufacturing companies have. That’s why career and technical schools, like CLC, work with local businesses to learn how to best prepare students who do seek a formal education for the workforce.

Rebekah Kent, dean of career and technical programs at CLC, spoke highly of the collaborations between the school and businesses like Pequot Tool, but noted educators like herself and are still trying to figure out how to better their programs. Though CLC offers hands-on learning in many trades fields, Kent -- like Walter -- noted there’s still a gap between what schools teach and what manufacturing companies need. That’s because schools can often only give students a baseline knowledge of the field, while each company needs workers with very specific skills, according to Tim Walker, training and development specialist at Pequot Tool.

“The most advanced skills cannot be taught,” Walker said, advocating for more funding to train workers to develop those advanced skills.

Programs like the PIPELINE project and the related Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, Kent said, are driving CLC to push further into figuring out how to bridge the gap between what students learn and what businesses need.

“How do we make sure that we’re covering the right skill sets and that critical thinking and that problem-solving and the soft skill piece so that when they (students) come to the apprenticeship program here, they actually have hooks to put the new knowledge on and build those new skill sets?” Kent said.

In 2016, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, successfully pushed for a $5 million grant from the Department of Labor to kickstart the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative and strengthen partnerships between community colleges and local businesses to expand apprenticeship programs.

Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, discusses what state legislators can do to help manufacturing companies grow during a roundtable discussion Thursday, Nov. 7, at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, discusses what state legislators can do to help manufacturing companies grow during a roundtable discussion Thursday, Nov. 7, at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

What can the government do?

One effort in place to support the manufacturing industry, Sen. Anderson noted, is that when the state government awards scholarships to career and technical schools, government officials do not specify where the funds need to go, instead, allowing the schools to decide where the money would best be spent. That’s an effort he said he does not want to see change in the future.

He also listened to ideas others at the roundtable had to offer about ways legislators can help strengthen the manufacturing industry.

Jim Goerges, board chair at Pequot Tool and owner of Precision Tool Technologies in Brainerd, said laws can sometimes be too restrictive. Minnesota Child Labor laws, for example, limit the amount of time kids under 18 who can work on a manufacturing floor and the kinds of machines they can work with. The intent is admirable, Goerges said, but the restrictions themselves can hurt the manufacturing industry as it works to train future employees earlier in their educational careers.

And many internship programs focus on summer internships, he added, instead of year-round programs students could participate in during school hours as well.

Twyla Flaws, human resources director at Clow Stamping Company in Merrifield, said the most important thing for state level legislators to know is that a program designed for the state of Minnesota as a whole might not necessarily work for the lakes area or other rural regions of the state.

“As you go forward, know that each pocket of Minnesota has a very diverse and different group of people that need service,” she said.

Flaws and Jill Anderson, co-owner of Lonesome Cottage Furniture Company in Pequot Lakes, also said transportation funds are important to be able to bus students from rural schools to businesses for tours and hands-on learning experiences.

Twyla Flaws (right), human resources director for Clow Stamping Company, talks about the importance of state programs geared toward rural Minnesota manufacturing companies during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, Thursday, Nov. 7, at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Twyla Flaws (right), human resources director for Clow Stamping Company, talks about the importance of state programs geared toward rural Minnesota manufacturing companies during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, Thursday, Nov. 7, at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Walker mentioned programs like the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative that have been instrumental in laying the groundwork for apprenticeship programs like that at Pequot Tool, while the grant from the PIPELINE project helped fund incumbent worker training.

And not only have the funds from those programs helped Pequot Tool, but they also indirectly benefited other companies, as Walker has used his knowledge from the apprenticeship program to mentor other businesses looking to start similar initiatives.

But the federal funding that started the apprenticeship initiative is soon ending. Amy Walstien, of Minnesota Business Partnership, said state business leaders have been in discussion with those on the state Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee about how continue to fill that need for start-up funds and if there’s a way to shift the PIPELINE program to help meet that need.

“So it’s good to hear from those have been really, deeply involved in this, that that’s a need to have funding for the framework,” Walstien said.

After listening to the various ideas in the room and learning first-hand about what lakes area manufacturing businesses experience, Sen. Anderson said he is reminded of all the championing efforts local legislators like Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, do on behalf of their communities.

“It’s a very special community that comes together, from the chamber to the education system, to higher education, to industry, and that doesn’t happen everywhere,” he said. “... A business like Pequot Tool is leading the way with regards to culture and how they address workforce needs, and for a region like this, that’s very unique.”

He concluded that the jobs provided through companies like Pequot Tool will continue to be sustainable and help rural communities be successful for years to come.