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Franken, Nolan discuss challenges of U.S. economy

The "good old days" took center stage for a time during a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, featuring U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listens while U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, makes a point Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, during a panel discussion, presented by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, at the Radisson Hotel. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The "good old days" took center stage for a time during a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, featuring U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan.

During what was billed as a "Capitol Conversation," Nolan, D-Crosby, recalled attending the University of Minnesota in the 1960s when tuition was an affordable $100 a quarter and books cost "25 bucks."

"This country has been so good to my generation," Nolan told about 200 people gathered in the Radisson Hotel's Great Room. "If you wanted to be a failure in my generation, you had to have a plan." All you had to do to succeed was to just show up, he continued.

"The world was our oyster," he said.

Franken talked about growing up in a Twin Cities suburb in the '50s and '60s.

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His father never finished high school, but Franken said he felt lucky living the middle-class life in their two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in St. Louis Park.

"I felt I could do anything," Franken said.

It was a time when the space race was taking off, making science, math and education in general extra-important, he said. But that feeling that anything was possible has diminished among young people in the decades since.

"I want every kid in America to feel like that again," he said.

He sees hope in the manufacturing comeback underway in the country, creating jobs for skilled workers.

"These are good middle-class jobs," Franken said, adding that skilled workers are in greater demand than unskilled ones.

Technology is changing so fast that manufacturers have a lot of jobs they can't fill because they can't find the people with the skills, he and others say.

Close to one-third of the manufacturers in the U.S. have jobs they can't fill because of the skills gap, Franken noted.

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"The good news is we can fix this," he said.

He noted efforts by businesses such as Cirrus Aircraft and AAR Aircraft Services in Duluth to team up with local colleges to produce trained avionics workers. In another example, Lake Superior College is expanding its manufacturing classes in welding, machine technology and computer numerical control to produce the skills employers need.

"I've seen these partnerships work," Franken said.

During a panel discussion moderated by Duluth Mayor Don Ness, talk went to Congress' short list of accomplishments in the past year and last year's government shutdown.

"Government is largely broken," said Nolan, who represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.

In comparing Congress today to when he first served in the late '70s, he said the focus has slipped away from fixing problems and getting things done.

They say the candidate who spends the most money gets elected, he said. So instead of focusing on the work of Congress, its members are spending more time on fundraising and getting ready for their next campaign.

Nolan is on the Water Resources and the Environment sub-committee, but they don't meet, he said.

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"So if you want to have an impact, he said, "you have to go around and collar everybody."

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