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Franken to propose legislation expanding career training pathways to all students

Franken used his visit to the Advancing Career Pathways Summit to announce a plan to fund career pathway programs for every student in the K-12 system, not just high-schoolers. 

Sen. Al Franken speaking to reporters earlier this week about a federal bill seeking to expand career pathway programs to K-12 school across the state.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Not everybody needs a four-year college degree to get a good-paying job.  

That was the conclusion of the Advancing Career Pathways Summit, a conference held earlier this week that focused on efforts to increase participation in career pathway programs for young people who want to obtain jobs that don’t require traditional higher education.

The event featured educators and high school students from Alexandria, Burnsville and Rochester who spoke about programs that prepare students for careers in construction, manufacturing, agriculture and health care — industries that are facing serious skilled labor shortages that will only be exacerbated as baby boomers retire. 

With that in mind, school leaders at the event showcased their collaborations with employers, educational institutions, and government agencies to create career paths for in-demand occupations.

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But the most important participant might have been Sen. Al Franken, who used his visit to the conference to announce a plan to introduce federal legislation seeking to fund such career pathway programs for every student in the K-12 system throughout the state, not just high school students.   

“I’m not talking about a kindergartener going on a factory tour,” he said. “But it’s not too early to introduce them to computers … science, technology, engineering skills.”

The idea behind the legislation

Last year, while visiting several high schools that offer advanced career pathway programs, Franken met students who were receiving college credits while also working in construction, agriculture, health care and manufacturing in their cities.

By the time the students graduate and earn credentials in their chosen professions, he learned, they can transition to full-time jobs at the same or similar companies — without the need to attend four-year colleges.

Decades ago, those kinds of jobs — aka “middle-skilled” — only required a high school education or less. Today, they often require more than high school education, but less than a four-year degree.  

The middle-skilled occupations in Minnesota make up about 50 percent of today’s workforce, according to Kermit Kaleba, of the National Skills Coalition, who spoke at the Saint Paul College event.

That means the established career pathway initiatives, which are gradually becoming more common in suburban high schools, are helping bridge an important skills gap in the workforce.

Educators and students from Alexandria, Rochester and Burnsville schools
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Educators and students from Alexandria, Rochester and Burnsville public schools sharing their experiences with career pathway programs to more than 300 people at Saint Paul College.

For that reason, Franken came up with the “Advancing Career Pathways Innovation Act” in an effort to ensure that career programs are available to every student in Minnesota’s K-12 system — legislation he plans to introduce when he returns to D.C. next week.

The bill would seek to secure competitive grant funding for partner educational institutions and employers if they demonstrate their strategies to maintain career training programs and have the capacity to create good-paying jobs.

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“This is really about America being globally competitive in the 21st Century,” Franken said of the legislation. “We see other countries, especially countries like Germany and Switzerland, who do this model very well. We can learn from them.”

Where the model works

Dozens of high schools in the Twin Cities metro area and Greater Minnesota currently boast a broad range of career training programs that are mostly available for junior and senior students who are on track for graduation.

St. Paul’s Highland Park High School, for example, has partnered with Saint Paul College where seniors and juniors take free career and technical education courses, including certified nursing assistant, business communications, computer repair and maintenance and web design.    

Similar programs are also offered to high school students in Bloomington, Burnsville, Minnetonka, Rochester, Alexandria and scores of other school districts across the state. 

At the conference, Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Julie Critz took the stage to talk about her district’s newly designed The Academies of Alexandria, a program housed in the Alexandria Area High School that prepares students for college and career. “This model came about for us when we realized we had a number of disengaged learners,” Critz said. “We had students graduating from college, without jobs.”

Meanwhile, she added, local business leaders and community members in the city were sharing with Critz and other school leaders information about the growing workforce shortage and the skills gap in the region.

In response, Critz and her team at the Alexandria school district came up with new ways to engage with their high school students: They created a small community learning and career-focused space for their high school students in partnership with the local community college and businesses.

Today, The Academies of Alexandria offers a range of vocational programs, including technology information, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, corrections, security and hospitality.

In addition to those middle-skilled occupations, the school also offers a “personalized” learning service that equips students with the tools they need to thrive in four-year colleges and universities. 

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“This is really about training people for your community,” Franken said of the career pathway program. “[It’s about] making sure that the businesses have skilled workers and that your kids will be able to get the skills to stay in the community and have a good, middle-class job.”