Turning Minnesota's Job-Skills Gap into an Opportunity for Low-Income Families

November 07, 2013 | MinnPost |  Link to article

A good job lifts a person out of poverty. A workforce well-trained to fill available jobs leads to a prosperous economy.

But there's a problem with that in Minnesota. Let me explain.  

By 2018, 70 percent of jobs in our state will require more education than a high school diploma. Contrast that with today's stats showing that only 40 percent of Minnesota workers have such qualifications. (The data come from the Governor's Workforce Development Council report in 2012.) Add to that the pending retirements of a swell of baby boomers.

"We do not have the workforce in the numbers or the skill set needed to continue to support the companies we have here in Minnesota. We're going to have a workforce shortage. That is a demographic reality,'' says Cynthia Bauerly, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

That's the skills gap we hear so much about.

But for the people supporting the economic rise of the poor, that problem is viewed as an opportunity. A conference taking place in St. Paul today, Nov. 7, could help bring about a win-win situation for both the state and low-income, job-seeking Minnesotans.

Tips and tactics

The event with a tongue-tripping name - "Strengthening Your Career Pathway Systems: Tools, Tips and Tactics" - is hosted by Greater Twin Cities United Way and sponsored by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Featured speakers include people from state and federal agencies in employment, economic development and education fields.

"It's important to have the areas of economic, education and workforce development aligned,'' says Frank Forsberg, a United Way senior vice president. "By providing individuals with needed skills to be hired and earn more than minimum wage, that not only benefits individuals, it translates into improving the region's economy because it keeps jobs here in Minnesota.''

That means setting up so-called career pathways for adults that incorporate education and training to fill the state's job needs.

State agencies already partner with educators, United Way, philanthropic groups and employers through the Minnesota Fast TRAC Adult Career Pathway Program, a network of services that help move low-wage, low-skill adults through education to employment. There are programs on 29 Minnesota State Colleges and University campuses.

There are also training programs offered by non-profit groups.

The International Institute of Minnesota channels clients to health-care training through the state program but also for the last two decades has staffed its own Medical Careers Pathway Program for New Americans.

2,000 nursing assistants trained

They've trained and graduated close to 2,000 nursing assistants over that time, helping fill the needs of nursing homes for staff and the needs of new Americans to become self-supporting.

"It's a great employment and economic opportunity for them,''and they are well-trained and motivated to work hard as they enter the American workforce, says Jane Graupman, executive director of the Institute. A nurse and an English-language learner teacher team-teach the classes, she explains. Students go on to pass standardized skills and written exams.

The starting average hourly wage is $11.11, far exceeding a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A recent survey showed a 90 percent job-retention rate at one year on the job.

In some families both husband and wife have gone through training, attracted by the opportunity to work and the pay, Graupman says. Some go on to additional training in related fields, such as a licensed practical nurse, registered nurse or respiratory therapist, through the pathway program.

"A stable job.... that means a lot to someone who has lived the life of a refugee,'' Graupman says.

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