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Northland officials talk boosting hiring

Lake Superior College (file / News Tribune)

To summarize the purpose of Thursday's roundtable discussion, The chancellor of the Minnesota State higher education system phrased it with a hockey analogy.

"So that we can skate where the puck is going to be, rather just chasing the puck all the time," said Devinder Malhotra.

If the puck symbolizes successful workforce development, the skaters are the two-year colleges and manufacturing employers trying to promote more students going into those fields. Dozens of industry, administrative and educational representatives converged on Lake Superior College to talk about how they could better incentivize students to pursue trade school jobs.

Malhotra said 18,000-19,000 students graduated in 2017 from career and technical colleges and entered the workforce.

"So our size and impact is fairly substantial even now, and yet, given the current and pending shortages, it is still not enough," he said. "We know we need to accelerate that work."

Despite the upward trend of the U.S. economy and low unemployment, many Northland manufacturers are having trouble finding people to hire. Lake Superior College was picked to host the discussion because of its connection with many area employers in aviation and health care such as Cirrus Aircraft, Essentia Health and St. Luke's.

With a diversity of stakeholders came an equally broad list of plights those industries face, as well as possible solutions. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, who represents District 7A, said a priority should be alleviating student debt.

"We really need industry to help us train students and educate students, but also help them paying for that higher tuition," said Schultz.

Bill King, director of business development at Cirrus, said he was frustrated with governmental restrictions placed on students getting experience flying, stating it stifles competition in helping potential pilots get jobs.

"Pilots in a state program can't leave the state with an airplane," said King. "It's insane. Every other institution on the planet doesn't have that many restrictions. But that's what Minnesota and Lake Superior College is stuck with."

While some are frustrated about the lack of off-campus housing available for two-year college students, others said trade schools need to push their message to different audiences. Mainly, younger students and their parents.

Mark Ketterer, the vice president of operations at AAR Aircraft Services, said by the time kids get to high school they are already uninterested in pursuing careers in technical and trade professions.

"We need to start looking at fifth and sixth graders and seventh graders and start changing that mindset that it's OK to go to you a two-year college," Ketterer said. "It's OK to learn how to do something with your hands. We've lost that in our high schools. We've lost that in our trade schools."

Ketterer went on to criticize that some classes weren't teaching the right lessons. He said that many students will learn a trade, but they don't grasp what it means to have a job. Great candidates get hired and come to work on time the first week, then after that start to slip up.

"We teach our kids to do things, fix airplanes or the medical field or whatever it is, but we're not teaching them what it means to have a job," said Ketterer.