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Franken discusses education, workforce opportunities in Denfeld visit

Denfeld student Matthew Johnston (center in lab coat) explains to Sen. Al Franken how Nation Automation robotics team members Tyler Schmitt (left) and Nikolai Breimon are working to reduce the weight of their robot. Franken toured the school's fabrication lab, auto shop and robotics area Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Phil Rannila, automotive instructor for ISD 709, explains the workings of the auto shop at Denfeld High School to Sen. Al Franken during Tuesday's tour. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

U.S. Sen. Al Franken joked during a Tuesday visit to Denfeld High School that his degree from a four-year, liberal arts college — that would be Harvard University — gave him “all the training I needed to be a comedian.”

But the four-year route isn’t working for many students, he said, who are working full-time jobs while attending school and still graduating with high debt and without the skills to fill some of the country’s most-needed positions.

“One thing we can do is start getting students to understand there is a career path where you don’t necessarily have to go to a four-year college right away,” he said. “You can get college credits in high school, you can get a community college or technical college degree, you can get credentialed, you can go into advanced manufacturing, you can start working and getting paid and go back to school and have your employer pay.”

Franken visited Denfeld’s fabrication lab and automotive shop and sat down for a roundtable discussion with local students, instructors and business leaders as part of a statewide tour highlighting the skills gap and worker shortage.

The senator also addressed issues of Congressional gridlock and new Education Secretary Betsy Devos, whose nomination he opposed.

Students are on winter break this week, but a number of robotics team members were gathered in the fabrication lab frantically putting together some last-minute modifications ahead of next week’s regional competition in Duluth.

Franken heard from students and faculty at Denfeld and Esko high schools, as well as Lake Superior College. Partnerships between the institutions, along with the private sector, have been designed to give high schoolers college credits and get them interested in careers in fields such as health care, manufacturing, automotive and information technology fields.

“They’re getting enough credits in high school that they’re getting a year jump on college,” Duffy Dyer, an instructor at LSC, told Franken. “Then they can get into the workforce quicker. That’s helping alleviate some of those shortages.”

Conor Reindl, a senior at Denfeld, has taken a medical occupations course, which he said has helped narrow his focus as he prepares to go to the College of St. Scholastica.

“I started my year really unsure of what I was wanting to pursue,” he said. “The program provided me with a safe opportunity to gather more experiences as to where I’d like to go, and I’ve figured out that I’d like to go into the medical field.”

Vance Okstad, director of organizational development for Cirrus Aircraft, told Franken that there is a barrier in getting potential workers to overcome the “dark, dirty and dangerous” reputation of manufacturing fields.

He said Cirrus has had to develop training programs and looks at educational and work histories of applicants in deciding who is well-suited for positions.

“We give more points to individuals who may have taken more industrial education courses,” Okstad said. “Our first look at potential employees is seeing if they have had any prior experience working on cars, vehicles or even in the manufacturing industry. Then the next step is do you have some kind of working history that says you’re a viable employee that can sustain a job and we are able to teach?”

Franken said he would advocate to continue funding for career and technical education scholarships and push for programs that integrate skills training into school curriculum.

Asked afterward about Congressional gridlock and the prospects of advancing an agenda on issues he supports, Franken wasn’t phased. He said education was an issue he’d focus on.

“If you throw a rock on the senate floor, you’ll hit a senator who has a skills gap in his state,” he told reporters. “This is one of the areas where it’s totally bipartisan. This is recognized as a problem, as a barrier in our county. ... Those are areas I like to get involved in. I’ll scrap on political stuff all the time, but I really like working with colleagues on things that aren’t partisan, and this isn’t.”

Franken also was asked about DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary, who he earlier called “not qualified for the demanding job of education secretary.” While he voted against her, Franken said he was encouraged by her testimony about support for workforce training.

“I came up to her after her (Senate confirmation) hearing, which didn’t go well — but I said to her, ‘I’m not going to vote for you, but you’re probably going to be confirmed and I want to work with you on that,’ ” Franken said. “And so I will; I look forward to doing that.”