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Riverland partners with companies to address skills gaps

Licensed pratical nurses Denise Benson, front, and Ashley Jacobson work Tuesday at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. Jacobson started classes at Riverland Community College on Monday for the college’s Bachelor of Science in nursing program. - Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Licensed pratical nurses Denise Benson, front, and Ashley Jacobson work Tuesday at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. Jacobson started classes at Riverland Community College on Monday for the college’s Bachelor of Science in nursing program. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the workforce challenge in Albert Lea and what local organizations are doing to resolve it.

Seeing needs in the workforce in the Albert Lea area, Riverland Community College is partnering with area businesses to address those gaps.

Two of the businesses the college is partnering with are Innovance and Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.

Bryan Crawford, general CNC machine operator, works at Innovance in Albert Lea last week. Innovance has partnered with Riverland Community College on a general machining program. - Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Bryan Crawford, general CNC machine operator, works at Innovance in Albert Lea last week. Innovance has partnered with Riverland Community College on a general machining program. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Steve Waldhoff, chief administrative officer with Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said Riverland officials have been responsive to working with the medical center, collaborating and providing well-trained people to fill different positions.

Waldhoff said the medical center relies on Riverland the most for the college’s nursing program.

“They provide us with licensed practical nurses as well as registered nurses,” he said. “We can take as many nurses as they can educate because there’s that much demand. They are a very critical partner and a very important part of our future.”

Waldhoff said the medical center also partners with Riverland by providing clinical rotations for radiography students. Riverland students team up with members of the Mayo Clinic Health System staff and are given the opportunity to participate in radiology studies as well as work side-by-side with members of the nursing team at the hospitals in both Albert Lea and Austin.

“All of the students gain exposure to a variety of health care professionals,” he said.

The medical center maintains state-of-the-art equipment that students get the opportunity to work on, and over the years, Mayo Clinic Health System has even donated equipment to the Riverland campus.

Jay Nelson, CNC machine operator, works at Innovance in Albert Lea. Nelson was a mentor for the Youth Apprenticeship Program. - Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Jay Nelson, CNC machine operator, works at Innovance in Albert Lea. Nelson was a mentor for the Youth Apprenticeship Program. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

“We’re very fortunate that Riverland is located in our community because they are truly a vibrant community partner,” Waldhoff said. “I think at times we don’t realize the significant contribution they make to our counties because students don’t have to travel, they don’t have to pay higher tuition costs and they can receive an excellent education close to home.”

Roxanne Ponce, human resources manager with Innovance, the parent company for Lou-Rich, Almco, Exact Manufacturing and Panels Plus, said she is impressed that Riverland officials are learning from business leaders what they need to have more successful companies.

“They heard from the employers of the need, and it was really good that they took action upon that,” Ponce said.

To address a need at Innovance, Riverland has started a basic machining training program, which is 17 credits and can be completed in one semester. It helps students learn to fabricate parts by interpreting blueprints and using precision measuring tools. It also helps students master lathe and mill operation.

“A lot of people don’t understand,” Ponce said of much of the manufacturing industry. “It takes a lot of math, blueprint reading, measuring. It’s not just pushing buttons.”

She said even the company’s basic assemblers have to use memorization and look at different schematics to assemble parts the way they is shown in blueprints.

After upgrading one of its own machines, Innovance has also donated a machine to the program. 0730.Workforce Challenge Logo

“Basically any new hire that comes in that’s lacking that experience, we send them out there,” she said, noting that it will be much easier for employees who go through the course to catch on to that line of manufacturing work. After completing the course they could become a computerized numerical control helper, with the goal of becoming a CNC operator.

Another area the company works with Riverland on is the Youth Apprenticeship Program, which gives Albert Lea High School students the chance to learn technical skills, while also gaining credit. When students are finished with the apprenticeship program they are encouraged to go to Riverland and continue their education.

“It’s a very good program, and I would like other employers to participate,” Ponce said. “It’s very beneficial for the students and the community.”