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Northland technical college, economic developers provide workforce insight for Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Issues range from lack of awareness of how to participate in apprenticeship programs to federal government regulations surrounding financial aid for two-year college students, and how those college administrators can spend grant dollars.

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From left, Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Greater Grand Forks Chamber, Sandy Kiddoo, Northland president, Brian Huschle, vice president of academic and student affairs and Rommel Lee, with the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, discuss workforce development issues.
Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald
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EAST GRAND FORKS — For economic developers and technical college educators in East Grand Forks, issues regarding the worker shortage in the region extend beyond the lack of people to fill jobs.

On Wednesday, March 30, Northland Community & Technical College administrators, local economic developers and Chamber executives met at Northland’s East Grand Forks campus at the behest of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to discuss workforce development initiatives. Klobuchar was not in attendance at that meeting, but addressed members through a prerecorded video message. When her message concluded, discussion of how to handle the problems facing job seekers, tech ed students and employers, was like a burst dam of concern and suggestions for help.

Issues range from lack of awareness of how to participate in apprenticeship programs to federal government regulations surrounding financial aid for two-year college students, and how those college administrators can spend grant dollars. Child care is also a major issue when it comes to a person wanting to either enter the workforce or undertake job training — the lack of childcare can keep people from working or studying.

Klobuchar arranged the meetings, nine in all around the state, to hear feedback on workforce issues, to inform future legislative ideas.

“We need your input,” she said. “You're on the frontlines, you know your industry, and I know you have a lot of good ideas.”

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A barrier for both students and workers is childcare, which Klobuchar said is either unavailable or unaffordable for many people. She has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation in the Senate to educate and retain childcare workers.

Sandy Kiddoo, Northland’s president, said several Northland students are parents, some single parents. Finding quality child care has been difficult given waiting lists in East Grand Forks and in places like Thief River Falls — the number of children is greater than the number of available spots for them.

“People who are not participating in the labor force have to have access to childcare so they can participate in the labor force,” Kiddoo said.

Paul Gorte, economic development director in East Grand Forks, said the city needs to add more than 200 spots for pre-kindergarten children. Kiddoo said Thief River Falls, where Northland also has a campus, needs to add a similar number of spots.

Another workforce issue is that people are already working. According to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the unemployment rate in Minnesota stood at 2.7% as of February. In her message, Klobuchar said there are 205,000 open jobs in the state, which she called a record high.

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber, said looking at the unemployment rate of other areas in order to attract workers is now an antiquated idea, given that those rates are so low. Increasing worker participation, by focusing on providing needed skills, is a place where colleges like Northland have an opportunity, because they are nimble and able to adapt.

“We've been playing this game — we're going to attract people from other areas,” Wilfahrt said. “I have news for you, the unemployment rate is zero everywhere.”

Some of those workers could come from overseas, though. In her message, Klobuchar said she supported raising the cap on temporary work visas in a variety of fields, including medical areas. Doing so, Wilfahrt noted, is a “sticky political issue,” though immigration law could be amended to let more people into the country.

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Yet another issue are apprenticeships. Klobuchar has sponsored a number of apprenticeship-related bills, such as allowing workers to earn credit for completed apprenticeships. But not all businesses are aware of how to register for apprenticeship programs. Meeting attendees called for regulations surrounding such programs to be repackaged and centralized, so business owners know where to look for information.

Kiddoo said regulations surrounding financial aid don’t match up for Northland students who are working in the school’s competency-based approach to education. In that model, employed students come to the school when they need a particular class. That makes it problematic when it comes to filling out a traditional academic year-based aid application. She called for more flexibility for financial aid.

Kiddoo and other attendees also called for more flexibility in spending government grants. When Northland gets a grant to set up a new program, for example, the grant doesn’t allow for administrative costs or marketing, meaning the school goes out of pocket to advertise the new program.

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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