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Workforce development key to Minnesota higher education budget request

“And we are not asking the state to spend the budget surplus on us. What we are asking the state to do is to make bold strategic investments in us so that we can help the state grow with surplus even more."

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra speaks to a crowd Thursday during a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra speaks to a crowd Thursday during a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Kari Lucin / The Globe
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WORTHINGTON — Boldness and workforce development were the themes at Minnesota West Community and Technical College on Thursday, as college, local and regional officials united to tell the Minnesota State chancellor their needs for his upcoming budget request to the legislature.

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“I’m going to ask you to be bold. I’m going to ask you to be direct. And I’m going to ask you to talk about what we could do in this region, to provide policy and provision for our neighbors here in our communities,” said Terry Gaalswyk, president of Minnesota West.

In his closing remarks, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra made it clear that he had heard the message, offering up one of his own, calling the pursuit of faculty and student success a moral imperative, as well as a social and economic one.

He then referred back to Minnesota’s budget surplus.

“And we are not asking the state to spend the budget surplus on us. What we are asking the state to do is to make bold strategic investments in us so that we can help the state grow with surplus even more,” Malhotra said.

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Listening

For the most part, however, the chancellor was there to listen, not to speak, and he did so.

Vice Chancellor of Finance and Facilities Bill Maki kicked off the discussion with a brief summary of past funding for Minnesota State, which is the third-largest higher education provider in the United States and the largest in Minnesota. It includes seven state universities and 26 colleges on 54 campuses, with 300,000 students and 14,400 staff members.

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When the Minnesota State system was formed in 1995, higher education made up 12.2% of the state’s general fund budget, as compared to the just over 6% it has now.

“A lot has changed over that time period,” Maki said.

After Maki’s summary of the finances, the listening portion of the meeting got underway, starting with Greg Raymo, president and CEO of First State Bank Southwest.

“What we find as we are trying to recruit talent, is that if we can keep them educated here in southwest Minnesota, and they put their roots here in southwest Minnesota, we stand a much better chance of retaining them as an employee,” said Raymo, who was the first community member to speak about higher education and workforce development and retention, but not the last.

Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian speaks at a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian speaks at a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Kari Lucin / The Globe

Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian, who is also running for the Minnesota House of Representatives District 21A seat, also said that one of the biggest challenges southwest Minnesota faces is workforce development.

He referred to students leaving Minnesota for the Build Dakota scholarship program in South Dakota, which offers them free technical degrees in exchange for working in South Dakota for three years.

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“Once they would leave, they would never come back,” Baustian said.

He also spoke about the Southwest Minnesota Council of Mayors’ efforts to create a workforce development program focused on the trades, and emphasized the importance of keeping young people within their communities.

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“We’re exporting our future,” said Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls. “We can’t afford to do that.”

The student body president of Minnesota West’s Canby campus said he’d been pushed toward four-year schools throughout his time in high school, and advocated trade school options being pushed more at the high school level.

Rita Miller, a medical laboratory technician instructor at the Luverne center, referred to a “critical shortage of medical lab techs” and headhunters constantly calling her in search of students and graduates.

Erin Schutte Wadzinski, owner of Kivu Immigration Law, who is running for a seat on the District 518 Board of Education, commended the Minnesota State system and its partners for the “grow your own” teacher pathway opportunities, which allow local students to become licensed teachers without leaving the area. Schutte Wadzinski pointed out the opportunity for Minnesota State to address the workforce issue with the immigrants of southwestern Minnesota, “an untapped population that has incredible opportunity” if given a chance to bridge educational gaps.

Celina Fonseca, a resource specialist at Minnesota West’s Jackson campus, said that she had interest in programs from people who have graduated from schools in other countries but lack a GED.

“I would have to say we’ve made some great strides in our student support,” said Rebecca Weber, dean of student services at Minnesota West, who pointed out that needs have also greatly increased, including the need for housing. Maya Bledsoe, a student advisor on the Pipestone campus, added transportation and food security needs to the list and pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic had shown some of the disparities in the student population, giving the example of first-generation students who don’t know how to navigate the college system, or students who don’t have access to a car or a printer.

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Dr. Kumara Jayasuriya, president of Southwest Minnesota State University, reminded Malhotra and the community that four-year schools also need workforce development funds, giving the example of the teacher pathways that bring high school graduates to Minnesota West, before they transfer to SMSU to finish their teaching degrees.

“And we need to develop those types of partnerships,” said Jayasuriya, referring back to the “huge shortage of teachers.”

Representatives from Sanford Health and JBS both spoke about workforce challenges and partnerships. Worthington Police Chief Troy Appel, a graduate of Minnesota West, spoke about the statewide shortage of law enforcement officers and his department’s battle to attract and retain qualified candidates.

Michael Heidelberger, DFL candidate for Minnesota State Representative in District 21B, said he felt education is a long-term solution for many of the region’s issues.

“We’re in a critical labor shortage right now,” said Carrie Bendix, executive director of the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council, referring to the “great need” for almost every position in southwest Minnesota.

Meeting needs

After the listening session, Malhotra thanked those who spoke.

“It is an exciting time to be in higher education right now,” he said. “... because how many opportunities in one’s lifetime does one get to rethink one’s own profession?”

He mentioned that the way people learn and process information has changed, and so classrooms have changed. The way schools support their students needs to change too, as they lose nearly 30% of students in colleges and universities between the first year and the second — and those are mostly students in good academic standing.

“Our work is aligned to the needs of the communities in which our colleges and universities are located,” Malhotra said, noting that stackable credentials have become important, along with both on- and off-ramps to education. “We have to move to lifelong learning.”

He tied Minnesota State’s efforts to its Equity 2030 goal of closing the educational equity gaps between all students, whether they are based on race, ethnicity, family income or first-generation student status.

“If you close the educational equity gap, more students will stay in colleges and universities. They will persist and they will graduate,” Malhotra said, referring to it as a “great revenue enhancement strategy.”

He also emphasized the need for creating an educational experience where all students can succeed and fulfill their potential.

“If we do that, we will meet our workforce needs,” Malhotra said.

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra speaks to a crowd Thursday during a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra speaks to a crowd Thursday during a listening session at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Kari Lucin / The Globe

A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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