Hoiseth envisions teaming up with successful endeavor in Bemidji

    On one hand, Crookston has a relatively robust manufacturing sector and a relatively deep pool of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning services to choose from, along with plumbers, electricians and similar trades. Many of those local manufacturers and service trades would like to take on additional staff, but finding properly trained staff or staff who stay on after they’ve been trained in a challenge.

    On another hand, there’s Crookston High School, home to a lot of students who will eventually go off to earn four-year college degrees, and even more advanced degrees beyond a bachelors, but also many graduates (or kids who don’t graduate) who aren’t cut out for whatever reason for attending college for several years, and earning a two-year degree or a one-year or six-month certificate in a specialized trade in their more appropriate path.

    And on a third hand, there’s the University of Minnesota Crookston, which produces hundreds of graduates each spring, many of whom go off and start their careers elsewhere, but also some who might need or want to consider a new career path when they don’t get a job in their degree field right away.

    Those three hands could all be better served if the Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority, City of Crookston, Crookston School District (and surrounding districts), UMC, and the private sector could somehow join forces with a common goal: Enhanced workforce development.

    An expert in doing just that, Dr. Mary Eaton, founder of The Idea Circle in Bemidji 13 years ago that partnered, in collaboration with Greater Bemidji, the Minnesota Innovation Institute (MI2), shared MI2’s successes in filling in the gaps in workforce development in Bemidji and Beltrami County at this week’s CHEDA Board meeting. CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth was greatly encouraged by what he heard. He’d like to find a funding stream to launch similar efforts “that would engage with the MI2 platform” in and around Crookston, and suggested that if interest paid on the $300,000 loan from the City (through CHEDA) to Dee, Inc. this week could be funneled into CHEDA’s budget, with the principle payments going to the City, that might provide some seed money to get things headed in the right direction.

    “Workers are a challenge, it’s a big issue everywhere,” Hoiseth said. “We need to make sure CHEDA keeps an eye on the ball.”

    Increasing the tax base and adding jobs is essentially CHEDA’s constant, two-pronged focus, he added, but if the latter is going to happen to any significant degree, maintaining the status quo is probably not an option.

    Eaton said Greater Bemidji started working in earnest around five years ago with “bedrock” businesses that were concerned with a growing “lag in getting workers in.” While most employers realized most college graduates in Bemidji would probably leave to start their lives and careers elsewhere, they feared that too many young people “weren’t even considering the possibility of staying,” Eaton explained. “They didn’t know there were great jobs right there.”

    Her Idea Circle tries to connect young people to those great jobs, and works with employers and secondary and post-secondary educators to fill in the training gap.

    MI2 has served more than 700 individuals since 2013. It offers more than 25 courses, and has an 80 percent job placement rate with regional employers. Class sizes are small, Eaton said, with individualized plans, and MI2 provides recruitment, assessment and placement services. MI2 works with around 50 employers across the region, she said, with the latest to sign up, last week, being American Crystal Sugar.

    “You can’t talk to a business today that doesn’t say they can’t get the people they want,” Eaton said. “They have a need, but they don’t have the ‘ready’ person. Or they have the ‘ready’ person, but not the job. We try to create a ‘ready’ pool, and making youth aware of the opportunities available to them is a big part of that.”

    There are plenty of smart students who don’t “show smart” in a typical high school or college classroom setting, she said. “School wasn’t there thing, but you focus on hands-on learning, short-cycle training and focused education, and it starts to click,” Eaton said. “This isn’t months of training, it’s days and weeks. You get them on the job and once they’re on the job, you could do something like an apprenticeship or get more training. But the initial focus starts with engaging them.”

    She recalled three high school seniors in Bemidji who turned 18 during the school year and dropped out. “They figured they didn’t have to go to school anymore,” she said. All three, with MI2’s help, are now working. “One kid started at $13.50 an hour,” Eaton said. “A year later, he’s making $21.50 and he can’t believe it.”

    Eaton stressed that she’s not “knocking higher education.” Instead, it’s about “making the right connection at the right level.”

    With the 60 percent unemployment rate on the Red Lake Reservation near Bemidji, Eaton said there’s a place in MI2 for people who have “lost their way” and have legal issues. “We work with what we call friendly companies, who will take someone with some training into an entry-level job,” she said. “They employ people who have gone in a bad direction for whatever reason and are ready to go in a different direction.”

    MI2 can help with current and evening longtime workers who are faced with mastering ever-changing new technologies on the job. “Plant managers report seeing the fear in the eyes of people,” Eaton said. “They’re supposed to automatically know how to manage it and how to keep up with this tech curve that keeps going up. We’ll work with that company on what needs to be learned.”

Do something here?

    Hoiseth was pumped by what Eaton had to say.

    “Very, very exciting things are happening, and it’s my belief that with a proven track record, Crookston will capitalize on a partnership derived by working with MI2,” he told the Times after Tuesday’s meeting. “I have already used this resource in the recruitment efforts of a couple of companies looking to locate in Crookston.”

    Crookston’s narrative needs to tout its strong work ethic, but also that it has an “ample pipeline” of skilled labor that is being readied and available, Hoiseth said.

    The next step will be to identify a funding source and tap into it. Interest paid on the $300,000 loan to Dee, Inc. is a great place to explore first, he said.

    “One of the companies that stands to gain the most from such partnerships would be none other than Dee, Inc.,” Hoiseth said. “Thus, their dollars coming to CHEDA in the form of interest would be deployed right back into addressing our overall and their specific, local workforce development needs. That’s a real win-win.”