In January, five community programs throughout the state of Minnesota were awarded $95,000 in grant funding to develop and implement paid learning opportunities for 16- and 17-year-old students. The funding came from the Youth Skills Training Program at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (YST@DLI), which was created in 2017 with funding from the Minnesota legislature (Minn. Stat. 175.46) to help communities create local programs that give high school students exposure, training, certifications and paid work experience in five high-demand, high-growth industries: advanced manufacturing, agriculture, automotive, health care and information technology.
To be successful, local programs rely on connections between industry and education to ensure student experience is meaningful and relevant. Five pilot programs were awarded grants last year to develop paid learning opportunities in manufacturing, health care and information technology; this year, programs in Elk River, Hutchinson, Marshall, Red Wing, St. Paul, White Bear Lake and Winona will enable students in 27 school districts to get paid work experience in manufacturing and health care.
“Employers throughout the state are reporting an increasing number of unfilled positions in high-paying jobs that require a certification or two-year degree and describe significant challenges to find qualified and trainable employees to fill these skilled positions,” said Rich Wessels, Youth Skills Training Program Senior Project Manager. “The YST program is a way to address this issue by connecting industry with education to provide students with opportunities to learn about and gain hands-on experience.”
Wessels has long understood the importance of providing students with such opportunities. Before he joined the Minnesota DLI to manage YST@DLI, he worked with White Bear Lake High School and the Vadnais Heights Economic Development Corporation to create a youth skills training program. Created before the statewide program was established, the White Bear Lake program’s “Gen Z Connection Program” enables students to work at local employers like Mold Craft Inc., a custom injection mold manufacturer, and experience companies in the manufacturing industry. A few years after that program’s successful start, Wessels assisted Minnesota DLI representatives with the creation of the statewide YST@DLI program, working with lobbyists and even testifying about the resources school districts and employers would need to create successful programs across the state.
“My goal then, and my goal now, is not to help companies hire 16- and 17-year-old workers, but provide students with exposure to potential careers," said Wessels. "Employers I work with are clamoring for skilled employees. These training programs expose students to industries and careers they might not otherwise know about, careers that are high-growth, high-demand and where they can make living wages.”
Mold Craft, Inc., continues to participate in White Bear Lake’s Gen Z Connection Program and is one of the Minnesota industry partners approved to utilize YST@DLI grant funding in 2019. Through the program, students work 90 hours over the course of four weeks, earning $10 per hour as they learn the technical skills needed to create molds that produce key chains, plus key soft skills like interviewing, time management and communication.
“On their first day, students participate in formal ‘interviews’ with shop supervisors, reviewing job expectations and our sales cycle before learning the process behind designing and building molds,” said Mold Craft Vice President and General Manager Justin McPhee. “We believe that although the technical skills they learn are important, one of the most significant experiences students get out of their time here are lessons in workplace communication and the chance to experience a real interview process. Those experiences are applicable in any industry.”
Providing meaningful on-the-job experiences like the ones provided at Mold Craft are one of several requirements that YST@DLI programs must meet. Additionally, YST programs must offer related classroom instruction for high school credit, paid work experience that includes qualified supervision and safety training, and experiences that are “safe and meaningful.” They must also ensure that at least 80 percent of eligible students graduate and 60 percent of students receive an industry credential.
“The statute guides these requirements, but I think student participants will exceed these expectations,” said Wessels. “I think even more will earn those industry credentials, as that's such an important piece to this program. We want students to have something that's going to be meaningful to the industry they're planning to pursue a career in, and we've worked hard with our industry partners to ensure these credentials are valuable.”
Industry partners representing the five approved industries – advanced manufacturing, agriculture, automotive, health care and information technology – continue to be involved in creating YST programs through tours, speaking engagements, job shadowing, mentorship, “teacher for the day” opportunities, curriculum development and of course, paid work experience. With the second round of grant funding in place, YST@DLI representatives will continue traveling throughout Minnesota to share information and offer assistance to parties interested in creating and implementing YST programs in their communities.
“The program is still fairly new, but the interest significantly exceeds the available grant funding at this time,” said Wessels. “Employers are taking advantage of the opportunity to reach younger students, expose them to their industry and provide students with safe and meaningful work experience. This is one solution to the reported skills gap and a way for students to learn about pathways to high-growth, high-demand, living-wage careers within these industries.”
Timm Boettcher, Realityworks, Inc.
Timm Boettcher is the President and CEO of Realityworks, Inc., an education company that creates innovative learning tools for skills training. Passionate about the benefits of education-industry collaboration, Timm also chairs the Industry Workforce Needs Coalition, serves on the Board of Directors for Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE) and chairs the Western Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.