Northland Technical College, Economic Developers Provide Workforce Insight to Senator Amy Klobuchar – Grand Forks Herald
EAST GRAND FORKS — For economic developers and technical college teachers in East Grand Forks, the issues surrounding the region’s labor shortage go beyond a lack of people to fill positions.
On Wednesday, March 30, Northland Community & Technical College trustees, local economic developers, and House leaders gathered at Northland’s East Grand Forks campus at the request of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to discuss workforce development initiatives. Klobuchar was not present at this meeting, but addressed the members through a pre-recorded video message. At the end of his message, the discussion on how to deal with the problems faced by job seekers, technical education students and employers was like a barrage of concern and suggestions for help.
Issues range from lack of awareness on how to participate in apprenticeship programs to federal government regulations regarding financial aid for two-year college students and how these college administrators can spend grant dollars. . Childcare is also a major issue when it comes to someone wanting to enter the labor market or pursue vocational training – lack of childcare can prevent people from working or to study.
Klobuchar organized the meetings, nine across the state, to hear input on labor issues, to inform future legislative ideas.
“We need your input,” she said. “You are on the front line, you know your industry and I know you have a lot of great ideas.”
One obstacle for students and workers is childcare, which Klobuchar says is either unavailable or unaffordable for many people. She co-sponsored bipartisan legislation in the Senate to educate and retain early childhood workers.
Sandy Kiddoo, president of Northland, said several Northland students are parents, some single parents. Finding quality child care is difficult given the waiting lists in East Grand Forks and places like Thief River Falls — there are more children than there are spaces available for them.
“People who are not participating in the labor market need to have access to childcare services in order to be able to participate in the labor market,” Kiddoo said.
Paul Gorte, director of economic development in East Grand Forks, said the city needs to add more than 200 spaces for pre-kindergarten children. Kiddoo said Thief River Falls, where Northland also has a campus, needs to add a similar number of spaces.
Another labor issue is that people are already working. According to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 2.7% in February. In her post, Klobuchar said there were 205,000 jobs open in the state, which she called a record high.
Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber, said looking at other regions’ unemployment rates to attract workers is now an outdated idea, given that those rates are so low. Increasing worker participation, focusing on providing needed skills, is one place where colleges like Northland have an opportunity, as they are nimble and able to adapt.
“We’ve played this game – we’re going to attract people from other areas,” Wilfahrt said. “I have news for you, the unemployment rate is zero everywhere.”
Some of these workers could, however, come from abroad. In her post, Klobuchar said she supported raising the cap on temporary work visas in various fields, including medical fields. Doing so, Wilfahrt noted, is a “delicate political issue,” although immigration law could be changed to allow more people into the country.
Learning is another issue. Klobuchar has sponsored a number of apprenticeship-related bills, such as allowing workers to earn credit for completed apprenticeships. But not all companies know how to register for apprenticeship programs. Meeting participants called for the regulations surrounding these programs to be repackaged and centralized, so business owners know where to look for information.
Kiddoo said financial aid regulations do not match Northland students working in the school’s competency-based approach to education. In this model, employed students come to the school when they need a particular lesson. This complicates the task when it comes to filling out a traditional aid application based on the school year. She called for more flexibility for financial aid.
Kiddoo and other participants also called for more flexibility in the use of government grants. When Northland gets a grant to set up a new program, for example, the grant does not include administrative or marketing costs, which means the school pays for advertising the new program.