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‘Record number’ of job openings recorded last year in region

Grenier

REGIONAL — Southwest Minnesota experienced a “record number” of job vacancies in 2018 — a statistic that has school districts across the region continuing to reevaluate their curriculums and redefine their educational priorities.

According to Luke Greiner, a regional analyst of the state’s central and southwest regions for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, there were nearly 3,700 full- and part-time job openings in the lower southwest nine counties of the state in 2018. That job vacancy easily surpassed the former 2,400 job-opening record within more than the last decade, experienced in the region in 2015.

For many jobs, degrees not necessary

More than 70 percent of all current jobs, he added, have a typical education requirement of a high school diploma or less.

“The vast majority (of job openings) are not doctors, lawyers or these occupations that require high degrees of education,” said Greiner, who tracks workforce trends and student outcomes for the area by a variety of data-tracking methods.

While Greiner said the southwest part of the state grapples with finding labor in a variety of occupations, some of the most in-demand jobs for the region include Commercial Driver’s License operators, construction trades (carpenters, laborers, HVAC, plumbers, electricians, cement masons and concrete finishers), Certified Nursing Assistants, retail sales professionals, teacher assistants, Patient Care Assistants, accountants, Licensed Practical Nurses and cashiers. The current workforce continuing to reach or surpass retirement eligibility age, combined with a lack of interest in those careers among the upcoming workforce, are some of the more noticable causes leading to the high demand, Greiner said.  

While a few of those professions do require at least an associate’s degree, Greiner said many only require industry-recognized credentials and fundamental skills — which many veteran workers in the industries are saying the new workforce pool lacks. That’s why career and technical education programming at the high school level has become increasingly important, Greiner said, particularly for the 20 percent of high school graduates in the region entering the workforce immediately following graduation.

Getting the word out

Efforts to increase students’ exposure to a variety of CTE coursework — including manufacturing, introductory medical careers, information technology, education and more — is well underway in local school districts. That effort recently received a $150,000 boost from the Greater Twin Cities United Way, in addition to some smaller grants from the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.  

The first phase of a two-phase grant opportunity from the Greater Twin Cities United Way, awarded to the Southwest Initiative Foundation, is being utilized toward CTE programming in local school districts, said Kayla Westra, Minnesota West Community and Technical College Dean of Institutional Effectiveness and Liberal Arts.

According to Westra, those funds are focused on the Windom, Jackson County Central and Worthington school districts to help expand awareness of CTE and further develop curriculum to match industry trends and needs.

“Career pathways and an understanding of what classes you are taking and why is important to getting where you want to go in a career,” Westra of the need to develop what she considered maps, so that students and instructors can be very purposeful and align classes with what students plan to do after high school graduation. While classes are being offered in the Windom, JCC and Worthington school districts with assistance from Minnesota West, Westra explained those programs service the region, and there’s a great deal of focus on CTE coursework in surrounding school districts.

Once-popular programming

Westra is encouraged and grateful for organizations that recognize the need for the revitalization of CTE programs for high school students and are willing to help fund it.

After all, Greiner said, CTE was once some of the most well-funded programs in high schools — particularly in the ’70s, from what he’s been told by folks who grew up in that era.  

“I’ll talk to some of the old-timer folks from education and they talk about how they couldn’t spend all the money they had in CTE,” he said. “It’s crazy to hear how much money there was, but it obviously wasn't it sustainable. When referendums didn’t get passed and bond levies (failed), CTE programming, the way it sounds, was some of the first areas to get cut, and it has been slowly dismantled for decades.”

Focus seemed to then naturally shift to encouraging students to pursue four-year degrees, Greiner and Westra agreed. Without CTE course offerings, a student’s high school experience becomes centered around preparing to take high-stakes tests, like the ACT and SAT, Greiner said.

“(Those tests) are incredibly important tests, but I’m not sure if anybody thinks that the right way our high school programming should be is just be to take a test to get on to something else,” Greiner said, adding that mentality is a particular disservice to the one out of every five students that don’t further their education after high school.

Important for everyone

Westra said the career exploration that CTE offers is important for all students.

“It may not only be an on-ramp to a career, but it can also be an exit ramp,” she said. “It may help students understand it’s not a career for them, and that’s OK, too.”

Greiner agreed, adding that CTE exposure prior to youths entering the workforce — or the approximately 71 percent begin college — is important from a financial perspective.  

“It really behooves our communities to know what they’re pursuing and making sure their money, their parents’ money and the state’s money is being spent wisely,” he said. “Dramatically changing a major in college, say from a lack of career knowledge and exposure, can dramatically increase costs and potentially decrease the likelihood of completion.”

Greiner believes that the popularity of CTE programs is only going to increase until they become as well-funded and known as they once were.

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