Initiative addresses the workforce shortage

Published 9:00 am Thursday, November 26, 2015

Guest Column by Patricia Jesperson

Our state’s workforce shortage — anticipated for years based on demographics and now accelerating due to our stronger economy — has arrived in every community and in every industry. Employers of all sizes and types are challenged to find qualified talent. Lack of housing aggravates the problem.

Fixing the problem demands new approaches and collaborations. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has advanced various legislative solutions to tackle the state’s workforce needs, but not all problems can or should be solved by government action.

Patricia Jesperson

Patricia Jesperson

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We’re excited to launch Business Education Networks, a proactive approach to better synchronize workforce skills with the needs of the changing economy. This private-sector initiative is based on the premise that solving our state’s workforce problems is more about communications and persistence than new legislation.

Newspaper headlines from all corners of the state underscore our challenge. Willmar: “Analysts warn of upcoming job crisis.” Bemidji: “Working to boost the workforce.”  Rochester: “Where will the workers come from?” Albert Lea: “Meeting the workforce challenge.” Pequot Lakes: “Local chambers of commerce respond to worker shortage.”

Winona, home to 100-plus manufacturers, struggles to find qualified applicants for a variety of high-demand manufacturing job opportunities. It’s not for a lack of trying. Winona has excelled in strengthening connections among business, education and community leaders to build the workforce. We chose Winona to launch Business Education Networks because of these existing partnerships. With employers at the heart of these conversations, we will inform students about skills needed, opportunities available and over a short period of time, ensure that skilled applicants fill available jobs.

Funded through grants by the Carlson Family Foundation and Bush Foundation, Business Education Networks aims to ensure educators are in sync with economic change. The job skills required to propel today’s economy change almost as regularly as our seasons. Employers don’t have the time or luxury to wait for a new curriculum to be developed, and then to produce graduates two or even four years later.

Our objective is to expand the effort in Winona to other local communities that have their own distinct workforce needs. Working with local chambers of commerce, we’ll assess worker supply and demand and then develop approaches tailored to meet those challenges. We’ll succeed only if we are sharing relevant data on a timely basis with all the stakeholders — students, education institutions, workforce training centers and community-based initiatives, to name a few.

The Minnesota Chamber has a reputation for designing private-sector solutions for public-sector challenges. Minnesota Waste Wise and Energy Smart, along with Grow Minnesota!, are great examples. The first two programs assist businesses in protecting natural resources while building their profits. Grow Minnesota! helps the state’s economy change and grow by providing one-on-one assistance to hundreds of Minnesota companies.

Our strategy behind Business Education Networks mobilizes our state’s employers — the players with the most at stake in ensuring Minnesota’s workforce is well prepared. Building these networks will help narrow the skills gap, plus encourage students from all backgrounds to complete education in areas where they will have opportunity for meaningful employment. That’s a win-win for everyone.


Patricia Jesperson is owner of mMarple LLC and chair of the Minnesota Chamber Education and Workforce Development Policy Committee.