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State creates scholarships for students at Minnesota technical colleges

lab technician
REUTERS/Harrison McClary
The Workforce Development Scholarship pilot program will award each student $5,000 over two academic years as a means to incentivize students to go into industries where the state's skills-gap is most pressing: manufacturing, agriculture, health care services and information technology.

When it comes to jobs in Minnesota, one particular issue seems to be on everyone’s lips: the shortage of skilled workers across different industries in the state. 

The issue was the main topic during a recent Minnesota Chamber of Commerce conference, which brought together business leaders, foundation executives and nonprofit directors from throughout the state. 

And it was what brought Sen. Al Franken to a recent Saint Paul College event, where he announced a plan to introduce federal legislation seeking to fund K-12 career pathway programs in hopes of exposing students to jobs at a young age.

It was also a concern at the state Capitol, where state Sen. Paul Anderson and other lawmakers managed to pass a bill at this year's legislative session, SF 2045, aimed at helping students in Minnesota who are pursuing degrees in manufacturing, agriculture, health care and IT. “As a state and as a country, we’re coming up to a workforce shortage,” said Anderson. “We need to do everything we can to encourage folks” to become skilled employees.

The Workforce Development Scholarship pilot program will award each student $5,000 over two academic years as a means to incentivize students to go into industries where the state's skills-gap is most pressing: manufacturing, agriculture, health care services and information technology.

In addition to being residents of the state, qualified scholarship applicants must be low- or middle-income students who are enrolled for at least nine credits at a two-year program at one of the Minnesota State system colleges or universities.     

The scholarship program is a response to the growing outcry of Minnesota employers who are struggling to fill vacancies as baby boomer employees continue to age out of the workforce, a shortage that’s expected to worsen in the years to come.

Anderson says he thinks a serious skill mismatch could be prevented if Minnesota comes up with innovative solutions to entice high school graduates to attend two-year technical colleges that would help them land well-paying jobs. 

Which is to say, Anderson noted, a traditional four-year degree is no longer the only ticket to good jobs in today’s economy. “Not everybody is prepared for a four-year college experience,” he added. “So, these two-year technical schools are also good ways to get people trained for the workforce.”

The state Legislature appropriated $1 million for the program, which will provide tuition assistance for 200 students in one year, and Anderson says the Legislature will continue to fund it.

“My hope is it will be successful,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of students taking advantage of it; so we can come back and work on it a little bit more.” 

Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, said the program is an important addition to initiatives that government officials, educational insinuations and business leaders have already been involved with to produce skilled future workers.

But what’s equally important, he added, is to find a way to make the program more visible to high school students — and even people who are already in the workforce, but would like to go back to college.  

“If they make it somewhat visible, it will attract maybe young people who went to work because they wanted to earn $12.50 an hour,” he said. “Now, they may say, this [scholarship program] is enough to go back and get some formal technical training for my industry.”

If promoted, Kill said, the program could also attract nontraditional students who are in their 30s and 40s who might be working in dead-end jobs and can’t afford the college tuition to advance their skills. 

“It might make them think about going back to school and getting formal education to complement what they’re doing,” he said, “Or it might allow them to change careers.”

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Comments (2)

Seems like a good program

Help people who are motivated to improve their skills and help close gaps companies have today to hire those types of talent. Win Win.

"Vo-Tech" post-secondary public schools were once tuition-free

This situation seems to be the result of a deliberate policy change on Minnesota's part. When I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, the state technical colleges were called "vo-tech institutes" (there were 19 or so of them around the state) and they were tuition-free for recent high-school graduates.

While I went to Hamline (lots of scholarships and grants, rather than loans), a number of friends and classmates took this career path, regardless of their family's incomes. I don't recall anyone telling us we had to go to college to make a good life for ourselves and our families.

But perhaps making the non-four-year routine less attractive by making it more expensive helped spur the notion that college was the better option. Perhaps businesses that need skilled workers could be persuaded to pay special education tax to bring back tuition-free degrees. I'm not holding my breath.