The Wright Path to Workforce Development

Wright County, MN

With 368 manufacturing facilities working full tilt and unemployment figures well below the national average, Wright County, MN is obviously doing something right when it comes to workforce development. We spoke with Duane Northagen, Director of Wright County Economic Development Partnership; Brian Koslofsky, Executive Director of Wright County’s Cooperative School District 966; and Shaun Karson, Principal, Wright Technical Center, to learn what’s afoot in this thriving county.
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Central to Wright County’s comprehensive workforce development program is a partnership between education and industry. It’s one that goes much further than annual career day events, however, something businesses across the country do routinely. Instead, in Wright County, through innovative and thoughtful programming, education and industry work hand-in-hand to provide an array of state-of-the-art career and technical programs and other educational opportunities that respond to ever-changing workplace needs.

There’s a strong relationship among the key partners which Northagen brings to our attention. We are very much interrelated because our programs and our vision overlap and there is always open communication between us. I’m director of the county’s Economic Development Partnership (EDP, founded in 1993) and the Wright Technical Center (WTC) is represented on our 15-member board and all three of us (Koslofsky, Karson and himself) are board members for the CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program,” which is supported by business leaders, some of whom are CEOs of national companies headquartered in Wright County.

Proactive workplace development through intentional education programming goes back to 1972, when the WTC was established in Buffalo, MN. That was the same time that school districts across North America were phasing out technical and vocational skills programs, which has led to a critical shortage of skilled workers. But not so in Wright County, where education officials bucked the trend to eliminate vocational and technical training and came up with an innovative and cost-effective way to offer it.

Instead of having to upgrade expensive equipment in every high school, they posed a question no one else had thought to ask: Why not have one centrally located state-of-the-art technical / vocational school offering high-tech electives to students enrolled in high schools throughout the county, where they would continue to pursue their core academic subjects? By 1972, WTC was up and running, servicing eight school districts in Wright and Sherburne counties, offering programs responsive to employment needs.

At WTC, Koslofsky explains that each year, 650 students at the junior and senior levels choose from among 12 Career and Technical Education options which include Automotive Technology, Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO), Construction Technology, Cosmetology, Early Childhood and Elementary Careers, Graphic Communications, Health Sciences, Law Enforcement and First Responder, Welding Technology, Youth Apprenticeship/On-the-Job Training and Engineering through a program known as Project Lead the Way.

What separates WTC programs from those taught in traditional high schools is the level of instruction. Referring to his 31 years as an educator, which included 19 years in the classroom teaching industrial arts, Koslofsky refers to “the level of skill of our instructors. They teach one subject all day long, whereas when I worked in high school I had to teach four or six different subjects in one semester and that makes it a challenge to be great at them all. You’re so busy trying to just be good that you’re never going to be great, but here the instructors are so specialized that they really are great.”

Another key element that separates courses taught at the WTC from ones taught in high schools is their integration with the real world. The Construction Technology students, for example, will construct a single level, turnkey, three-bedroom house that will be sold. Health Sciences students qualify to register for the Minnesota State Nursing Assistant Licensing Examination, which allows them to enter the workforce immediately, which some do, finding employment at long-term care facilities. Alternatively, they’ve been well-prepared to pursue other professional health care options at the post-secondary level. Project Lead the Way students use the same industry-leading 3D design software used by companies like Intel, Lockheed Martin and Pixar as they prepare to enter either a two-year technical college or a four-year degree university program in engineering.

In addition to those programs, there are other options. On-the-Job Training, for example, allows students to make the workplace their classroom; they earn money and at the same time learn people skills while attending regular classes part-time.

The Youth Apprenticeship program takes career exploration to the next level, giving high school students an opportunity to earn money while learning highly technical skills from a trained worksite mentor. The program is based on statewide youth apprenticeship program guidelines which are enforced by business and industry. According to Karson, this year, 54 youth apprentices will finish 450 hours of work with 43 different companies.

“90 percent of our students complete their apprenticeship successfully,” he says, “and most of the companies are willing to hire them on. Some companies are so pleased that they’re paying for their post-secondary studies if the student agrees to continue working for them.”

And then there’s the CEO, or Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program, in which over the course of the year students will have an opportunity to start their own business and learn from their successes or failures. Local businesses and service organizations donate annually over $30,000 to this program while business leaders share their expertise one-on-one in a mentorship program. According to the course syllabus, “Much will be expected of you, but the growth and reward opportunities are literally endless.”

It’s a program Northagen admits he “partnered” with a national program and introduced to WTC four years ago. Every morning before school (7:30 – 9 am) juniors and seniors enrolled in the program are taken to various business sites to hear directly from business leaders the story — the good and the bad — of how they got where they are today. During the year, the students create their own businesses and present them to the public at a trade show. “We’re finding,” Northagen says, “that by building business leaders from the inside out, that kids want to stay here and be part of Wright County when they realize what it has to offer.”

Adds Karson, “Each of our programs has an advisory board that meets at least twice a year and on the board are members from post-secondary institutions, local businesses, students, parents and the instructors. They define the curriculum and how to best serve what businesses are looking for in the workforce future. We work a lot with business partnerships in each of our programs. Some are sponsors, making financial contributions or donating materials – they’re guest speakers, and they’re open to job shadowing.

“Employers see what students have learned while they’ve been here. On a state and national average, our students score 10 percent higher than comparable students in the state of Minnesota and about 20 points higher on technical skills on the national average, because the experience they get here is definitely more advanced than typical career-oriented technical courses they might get in regular high school programs.”

Workforce development doesn’t stop with the high school programs, however. Throughout the year, Northagen, through the EDP and in partnership with local businesses including Xcel Energy, Scott Build, Bauer Design Build, Bolton & Menk, Wright Hennepin Electric, and CRS, presents up to 16 Workforce Discussion events in various locations (Buffalo, Monticello, Rockford, Delano).

An annual highlight is the Legislative Update where this past June Sen. Bruce Anderson and Reps. Marion O’Neill, Eric Lucero and Joe McDonald focused on the role the state can play in recruiting, retaining and training future employees. Upcoming discussions include Workforce Housing and Employee Recruitment, a WCEDP Golf Event, Workforce Commuting, State Workforce Tools, Investment in our Youth, and a Holiday Social.

“It’s all part of the positive business climate we have here,” says Northagen, citing Wright County’s excellent location, centered between two large Metropolitan Statistical Areas, “close to St. Paul-Minneapolis on the east side of us and St. Cloud, 10 miles northwest and on the I-94 corridor. With over 368 manufacturing facilities, we’re projected to be the fastest growing county in the state over the next 15 years. (The population is currently 131,000 and is projected to reach 200,000).

“At the same time, Wright County is still very scenic, filled with lakes while housing costs are substantially lower than they are in the urban areas,” he adds. “It’s definitely a place where people want to live and work.”

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