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Local career program 'a terrific model,' Franken says

BAXTER--Amid record-high job vacancy numbers in central Minnesota and an impending wave of baby boomer retirements, a program connecting students to careers was the focus of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's visit to Baxter Monday.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken (left) listens to Avantech employee Randy Borg explain the details of a mold that will be used to create a plastic-molded kayak for an outdoors company Monday during a tour of the Baxter plant. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery
U.S. Sen. Al Franken (left) listens to Avantech employee Randy Borg explain the details of a mold that will be used to create a plastic-molded kayak for an outdoors company Monday during a tour of the Baxter plant. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery

BAXTER-Amid record-high job vacancy numbers in central Minnesota and an impending wave of baby boomer retirements, a program connecting students to careers was the focus of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's visit to Baxter Monday.

Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection was developed about 15 years ago, an effort to create a more direct path between businesses and the future workforce. Franken, D-Minn., led a roundtable discussion to learn about the program Monday at Avantech, a Baxter company manufacturing cast and computer numerical control aluminum tools used to mold plastic.

The Bridges initiative has grown to 137 programs in 22 schools, involving about 1,500 students each year. Students in the career academies program participate in hands-on learning activities in career fields ranging from manufacturing and information technology to health care and public safety.

The Bridges Workplace Connection includes a massive Career Exploration Day involving more than 150 local career options, business tours, classroom speakers and educating the educators themselves on real-world skills students need to succeed in the workforce.

Franken said he has a strong interest in workforce development, particularly in the relationships between high schools, community and technical colleges and businesses. He saw such a relationship work well at Alexandria Technical and Community College in Douglas County, where in the middle of the Great Recession unemployment was lower than most of the state.

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"I started visiting other community/technical colleges that were doing the same thing," Franken said. "What I was hearing is that kids and almost more importantly parents didn't know about this. Parents were going, 'I want my kid to go to a four-year school.' And then they have a tremendous amount of debt and are not able to get a job. In 2009, that was what was happening, there were a lot of kids graduating with a lot of debt and they weren't able to get a job. But there were jobs in high-skilled manufacturing, and IT, and in health care and engineering."

Franken said he was interested in learning about the Brainerd-based Bridges program, which he viewed as a "terrific model in terms of its win-win-win-win-win."

"The model I see is kids get credentialed, start to work, get their education while they're working, continue their education ... and get the manufacturer or whoever it is to pay for it," Franken said. "What I saw when I first started was kids who were working 30 hours a week, 40 hours a week anyway (during college) to pay for school."

Franken listened as partners in the Bridges program touted its successes and goals, along with its impact on changing workforce needs.

"We need to figure out a way to keep our kids here and show them career opportunities here locally," said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president. "We hope that they can find some of these local opportunities and see what the community has to offer-it's not all hospitality, it's not all retail, we have great high-tech jobs here. If they don't stay here right away and we don't show them a path how to do that, they might come back when they're sitting in Twin Cities traffic. ... That's the investment that we're making, that we show them these opportunities."

Kilian said the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported the highest number of job vacancies ever recorded in Region Five-2,325-during the second quarter of 2016. Region Five includes Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

"We've actually reached that code red level for a number of businesses here, and I know you hear that around the state and coast to coast," Kilian said. "As we look forward, we'll have about 10,000 job vacancies in eight years, and we'll have 61,000 people leaving the workforce in that same time period."

Seated at the table were Brainerd High School seniors Athena Moe and Tommy Wells, both Bridges Career Academies students who told the senator they intend to pursue careers related to their academy studies. Moe is a student in the agriculture field and said her hands-on contact with professionals increased her interest in beef cattle nutrition. Wells, focused on the engineering track, said his experiences revealed his tendency toward robotics rather than civil engineering.

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Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk said Moe and Wells are exceptional students in the program and representative of where the program is headed. In the last five years, the average grade point average of students in the academies increased from 2.9 to 3.4, said Judy Richer, the academies coordinator for the Bridges program.

"Not only are we getting students who are higher skilled in the academies, but the students in the academies are getting better grades," Richer said.

"Because they're focused on something they're interested in," Franken responded. "Imagine that, doing better because you're engaged in something."

Those involved in the program focused on the collaboration among numerous partners and the importance of that in its success.

"We don't take little steps, we take giant leaps and we do it big," said Mary Gottsch, who leads the Workplace Connection aspect of the program. "We have to do it big, because when we get a lot of people in the room, we don't have a lot of time."

Hara Charlier, president of Central Lakes College, said she's lived in six states and has never before seen a program like this one involving so many partners working successfully together.

"In our communities, especially small rural communities, this group recognizes that a huge percentage of the jobs that will be here require less than a four-year degree. We know that," Charlier said. "The question is how do we get students engaged, interested to see that they can have a great life right here in the Brainerd lakes area? The commitment that I see around this table and beyond amazes me-to bring in almost all of our faculty, and two colleges are involved, which I have really never seen before."

Franken said what Congress can do to encourage more programs like Bridges is to recognize and reward those that work.

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"I want to be able to reward communities and high schools and community technical colleges and businesses that are working together in this way," Franken said. "We know that there are often some needs that could be helped with a little bit of funding. My idea is competitive grants. It's about what's the best bang for the buck."

Although Franken was a high-profile critic of the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, he said workforce development was one area of agreement he shared with the head of the U.S. Department of Education.

"She had brought up workforce training and I said, look, I may not vote for you, but I think you're probably going to get confirmed. And if you are confirmed, I want to work with you exactly on this, and she said yes. So I look forward to working with her on it," Franken said.

After the gathering, Gottsch said she was pleased with the stories shared with the senator and felt the program was represented well.

"I think the bottom line in all that is we're doing a really good job, because we're pulling a mass group of people together and we're making it successful because we have a foundation like the career academies," Gottsch said. "From that, it doesn't stop in the classroom. It moves out into the real world of work and our students are really experiencing so much more than they could ever, ever imagine."

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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