Amy Klobuchar: Time to invest in workforce development

Published 8:41 pm Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guest Column by Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar


From paper mills to poultry lines, the American workforce is changing.

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This spring, I had the honor of giving the commencement address to Ridgewater College’s class of 2018 in Willmar. Ridgewater is a community and technical college where students have the opportunity to partner with local businesses and get hands on experience in the workforce so they can hit the ground running right after they graduate. These students are modeling a different path to success — one that doesn’t require a four-year degree, but still results in a high-paying career.

I’ve seen this in my own family — my sister didn’t graduate from high school. Instead, she got her GED and went to work at a plant in Iowa. Later, she went to community college, then earned her four-year degree and went on to become an accountant, finishing her accounting exam with the highest score in her class.

More and more, we’re seeing workers who have specialized skills are finding great jobs, advancing our workforce and leading our country to economic success. But in the Minnesota 2017 State of Manufacturing report, 68 percent of respondents said it was difficult to find workers with the right skills and experience — up from 40 percent in 2010.

One way to close the skills gap is to utilize highly effective training models like apprenticeships. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with relevant academic instruction to create a win-win situation for workers and employers. For workers, apprenticeships provide an opportunity to stay in the labor market and earn a paycheck while pursuing nationally recognized credentials. For employers, apprenticeships create a workforce trained for their specific needs, reduce turnover and improve safety outcomes.

In 2015, I helped our state secure the funding to launch the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, which will provide training for 1,000 apprentices by 2020. In the Senate, I introduced the American Apprenticeship Act with Republican Sen. Susan Collins from Maine to provide funding to states for creating and expanding apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. Our bipartisan bill would help more of our workers bridge the skills gap and connect businesses that need to fill positions with workers who need jobs.

By 2020, 74 percent of all Minnesota jobs are expected to require education or training beyond high school. Right now, less than 50 percent of our workforce has that level of training. We can fix that. Last month, I toured Ericco Manufacturing in Viking where they’re tackling this problem every day. We talked about the importance of preparing more workers for open manufacturing jobs. Something that came up again and again was how one and two year career and technical degrees can be the key to getting that training.

That’s why I worked to pass a bipartisan bill to strengthen career and technical education. In July, the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act was signed into law to help more people get the training they need to compete for high-skilled, in-demand careers. It included my legislation to find the best ways to promote career and technical education to students, including the best ways to involve teachers, school counselors and parents, and evaluate the effectiveness of these programs.

But in order to attend community or technical college, you have to be able to afford it. I introduced a bipartisan bill in June, the Skills Investment Act, to allows workers to use tax-advantaged savings accounts to pay for skills training, career-related learning, and professional development throughout their lifetime. Career and technical programs need to be available and affordable not only for students, but also for people at all ages and phases of their careers.

Today, there isn’t just one path to success — there are many. Whether that means a four-year degree, career-related learning, professional development or skills training like this year’s Ridgewater graduates just received, everyone should have access to the skills and education they need to have a high-paying and rewarding career. Investing in workforce development, apprenticeships, and career and technical education gives American businesses an edge in the global marketplace. Our workforce must be ready to adapt in a changing world — America’s future economic prosperity depends on it.

Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minnesota, is a U.S. senator.