Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series examining the state of manufacturing in the Northland.

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If we all raise our children to be astronauts, who will be left to build the rockets?

Minnesota manufacturers face a glut of global challenges, few as pressing and seemingly solvable as the shortage of skilled workers.

“We don’t have as many people coming through the pipeline as we have had in the past,” said Charlie Glazman, associate dean at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.

Yet far from living in the twilight of American manufacturing, many say it’s just been dark before a new dawn, one bright with opportunities though fogged with uncertainty.

“We don’t know what’s over the horizon,” Glazman said. “You talk to me 20 years ago and half the jobs we’re trying to fill now didn’t even exist. What’s going to happen in 20 years from now is there are going to be more jobs that don’t exist now that a college is going to have to address.”

Colleges can educate a willing workforce, but policymakers and parents have a role to play in setting the stage for employers and steering the culture to create a bigger pool of potential employees.

“This is an issue for our region we really need to tackle,” said Brian Hanson, CEO of local business recruiter APEX. “It needs to start at the elementary schools even, with the idea that manufacturing is not dull and dirty, it’s high-tech, it’s

good-paying jobs and it’s a much more exciting workplace to be in than the old picture of a person standing on an assembly line.”

 “As a result you have to be trained - and get better pay.”

Advanced training, advanced jobs

In a bright, clean shop in downtown Duluth last week, students lined rows of manual mills, earning their right to move on to the screens and keypads that will dominate the rest of their education and, most likely, careers.

“You need to have the core basics so you can see it, smell it, hear it,” said Max Udovich, a machine technology instructor at Lake Superior College. “We’re teaching students to do the work ... before making every piece with one push of the button.”

The shop at the college’s downtown campus holds more advanced equipment than many area manufacturers, and the goal is to keep it that way. It’s just like the old adage: If you’re not early, you’re late.

“It never ends; technology is advancing so much,” Udovich said.

LSC and WITC have both moved in recent years to help meet the demands of a changing and suddenly growing manufacturing industry in need of more skilled hands. LSC opened its downtown campus in 2014, giving its advanced manufacturing programs three times as much space; WITC’s Superior campus cut the ribbon on its renovated facilities earlier this month.

Both schools stock their advisory boards with regional employers and employees to fine-tune curriculums and teach exactly what manufacturers are looking for.

“Just last year we wrapped up our curriculum revamp,” said Jenni Swenson, LSC’s dean of business and industry. “We’ve also compacted the curriculum to get students into the workforce much sooner.”

That’s welcome news for Matt Gildner, who is about to start sending out his resumes ahead of his fourth and final semester. The 32-year-old got an engineering degree in 2008, when the recession crumpled the job market and, as he puts it, “the placement rate went from 100 percent to 0 percent.”

“This is my door back into the industry,” he said from the controls of a waterjet cutting machine on the LSC shop floor.

The placement rate is much better today, Udovich said, adding: “I could give every student here a job right now.”

It’s increasingly common for those with four-year degrees to go back for technical training and more direct pathways to employment.

“In the words of one of our students, who is now working for the college: ‘I went to a four-year college for education but came to WITC for a career,’ ” said Glazman, the associate dean at WITC.

Not every student comes equipped with a degree - some don’t even have hands-on experience with tools - and Glazman said too much time is spent on remedial math skills needed to meet the demands of new manufacturing technology.

That’s a problem that needs to be solved before students get out of high school, something colleges are trying to help with outreach but can’t solve alone.

A policy fix?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar puts the problem simply: “Businesses across Northeastern Minnesota need workers, and workers need jobs. In Minnesota, 66 percent of our manufacturers said it was difficult for them to find workers with the right skills and experience.”

Supporting apprenticeship programs, investing in broadband and tuition assistance and incentivizing business/college partnerships are a few of the efforts Klobuchar and fellow Sen. Al Franken shared when asked how they can help boost manufacturing.

“The skills gap exists in every state, so working on this problem should be a very bipartisan effort,” Franken said.

To meet the skills gap and worker shortage even earlier, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said school districts need to be “nimble” to keep up with the needs of their communities.

“We need to really start looking at this in high school, and understand what we can do to help school districts bring a modern version of industrial arts, more hands-on versions of classes we used to offer,” Smith said by phone last week. “Not just a ‘let’s build a footstool,’ but experiences tied into the realities of manufacturing today.”

While she stressed that Minnesota’s tradition of local control of school districts is a positive, the state’s second-in-command posited that the state can be a “helpful partner” in reviving vocational programs that have slowly disappeared.

In doing its part, LSC is organizing field trips for K-12 students and launching a mobile collection of high-tech equipment that area schools can reserve to get students advanced hands-on experience.

But are there even enough kids interested in robotics, machining and welding?

“We’ve fallen down on keeping career and college counselors in our high schools,” Smith said. She estimated there are 700 students for every one counselor in the state.

Without being shown how modern manufacturing is clean and rewarding, as the chorus goes, there is less incentive for students to head toward those careers.

“I think we need to bring parents along and help them understand these are great jobs, high-paying, challenging and nothing to be ashamed of by any means,” Smith said.

‘A cultural thing’

Earlier this year, when Enterprise Minnesota asked technical college students what their high schools told them to pursue, it was unanimous: “We’re all told to go to college and become white-collar workers.”

The survey by the manufacturing consulting organization also revealed that only those students whose parents had a technical education or career received support for their decision to go into the trades.

Employers, technical educators and many policymakers want this mindset, as much as anything, to change.

“It’s a cultural thing - you ask most parents about their students, their kids, and a majority are saying you have to go to a four-year college,” said Glazman at WITC. “And when they come out many are having a tough time finding work.”

On the other end, even faculty at WITC are getting poached by manufacturers because there are so many jobs in that industry to fill, Glazman said.

Years of promoting all manners of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers have only begun to chip away at the shortage and skills gap.

“In the past, enrollment was a lot of people out of the industry, out of work; now we’re seeing more high school kids coming up,” said Udovich at LSC.

Those who want to see manufacturing flourish agree a cultural shift means spreading the word that manufacturing is technologically advanced, often takes more computer than physical skill and can be both financially and mentally rewarding.

“I do think we have the chance to do a better job communicating the opportunity to our youth,” said APEX’s Hanson. “As baby boomers are leaving the workforce there’s a lot of opportunity in manufacturing, and we should be figuring out how to share that with schools, with counselors, and tell them there’s more than one way to proceed into the working world.”