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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Region's economy faces a growing problem: A shortage of skilled workers

Region's economy faces a growing problem: A shortage of skilled workers

While on one hand a sign of economic prosperity, the unemployment rate in Minnesota — which has settled at around 3 percent — is presenting challenges for some local employers. 

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, approximately 9,000 jobs in southeast Minnesota are unfilled. Many of these vacant positions are of the high-skill labor variety; carpentry, construction, plumbing, electricity, and more. This shortage of manpower has the potential to stunt future economic growth. 

“There are more jobs today than we have qualified people to fill them," said John Wade, chair for the Greater Rochester Advocates for Universities and Colleges. "It’s a crisis. You cannot grow an economy if that occurs because you don’t have the people to build it, staff it, and support it — which is why we have to have a community that is absolutely committed to workforce education.”

Why is there a worker shortage?

Thousands of unoccupied high-skill labor positions in the region may have less to do with demand for “new” jobs and more to do with recently available ones as a result of retirees. As baby-boomers age, retire, and move on,  it becomes critical to replace them with younger workers.

“We’ve got folks here who’ve been working with us for twenty, thirty, some even forty years," explained Aaron Benike, president of Rochester-based Benike Construction. "Many of those folks are eligible to retire today. The reason they’re still with us is because they want to. They like the people they work with and building projects, so they stay. But if there’s ever an instance that they decide they don’t want to do it anymore, they could just retire and I would have to find people to fill their roles."

Retirement is a growing threat to employers across the region. Many, like Benike, spend extensive time and resources to make sure all his bases are covered to prevent a major workforce shortage. Benike takes careful steps to train younger staff in, and retain as many experienced workers as possible.

“You can’t just replace an experienced guy with twenty-five years of work under his belt with two or three new ones," he said.

Cultural obstacles

Employers in the region can no longer look to the baby-boomer generation for strength in high-skill labor fields. Instead, to confront this workforce crisis, organizations are turning to young adults.

The process of interesting a new generation in skilled labor is multi-faceted. Educational opportunities are a critical component, but the community may also suffer from the effects of predisposed cultural mindsets. 

"One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the attitude at home," said Wade, who spent 11 years leading Rochester's chamber of commerce. "Parents are not generally of the mind to encourage kids to follow these careers. There’s a lot of pressure to send kids on a baccalaureate track.”

However, what many parents and young adults may not realize is that in addition to being rewarding work, high skill labor occupations can be incredibly lucrative. In 2017, for instance, the United States Department of Labor reported the median yearly salary for electricians to be $54,000. 

Furthermore, the continually rising cost of higher education may be more than enough to sway some individuals toward skilled labor. 

Most skilled laborers achieve a degree in their trade in one to two years. Following graduation, many workers take a paid apprenticeship until they are fully hired by a company. By doing so, skilled laborers are able to avoid immense student debt.

Educating the next generation

Community stakeholders have begun focusing resources on offering opportunities for students to pursue careers in skilled labor fields.

The Rochester Career and Technical Education Center (CTECH), for instance, was established two years ago as a $6.5 million partnership between Rochester Community and Technical College and Rochester Public Schools. Through CTECH, students can gain experience in one of eight career pathways including everything from construction to hospitality to health science. High schoolers get the opportunity to actually bus or drive off campus and study in a specialized classroom in the Heintz building at RCTC. 

Completion of some of the classes at CTECH grant real-life certifications. Students can gain a Nursing Assistant and Home Health Aide certification from the Introduction to Health Science Careers course at CTECH. All classes at CTECH count for one high school credit, and sometimes college credit as well.

In addition to certifications, CTECH offers a unique experience for young adults; actual experience in a career they may pursue. The required courses in RPS teach applicable skills to certain careers and give students a general idea of what they enjoy studying, but not necessarily actual work experience. CTECH offers specific, career-focused education in fields that the students choose for themselves.

Brandon Macrafic, career and college readiness principal at CTECH attests to the school’s unique strengths: “Our philosophy is to try to prepare the students to be either career or college ready, where they’re not necessarily going to have adults watching them every second and telling them what to do. We give our students a lot of autonomy and they respond really well.”

The program is certainly growing. CTECH anticipates over 600 students enrolled for the 2018 fall semester, which is 100 more than last year. Currently the school is geared toward RPS students, but is looking to extend an invitation to students throughout the region in coming years. They’re adding four new classes for students to choose from, and working toward offering certifications in both culinary and construction career pathways.

“The one thing that students love most about CTECH is that they get this opportunity to take a class that they’re actually interested in," said Macrafic. CTECH gives students real, hands-on experience in  a field they’re seriously considering as a lifelong occupation.”

Sid Clarke is a student at Mayo High School, where she is president of the Literature Club. In the past, she has been a columnist for the Post Bulletin and an independent novelist. Sid finds writing inspiration from Shakespeare, Stravinsky and Metallica. 

Cover photo courtesy Rochester Public Schools

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