The Greater St. Cloud region located in central Minnesota is experiencing growth across diverse industries including production and manufacturing, construction, transportation, health care and retail trade. This growth, in turn, is spurring occupational growth in a tight labor market.
Workforce development is a hot topic across industries and geographies. The need for skilled talent is not unique to the St. Cloud region, but the collaborative approach the area’s leaders are taking to address the problem certainly is.
“We’re growing like crazy across the entire state, especially in St. Cloud,” explained Joan Schatz who is Co-president of Park Industries, a board member for the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC) and Co-chair of the organization’s expanding talent team. “It’s one of the best places people can go in terms of developing their careers,” she added.
In St. Cloud there are efforts to attract and recruit talent from outside the community, but it is the team’s local and regional efforts to, as Gail Cruikshank, talent director with GSDC said, “retain and retrain our own,” that is having the greatest impact and has made the region a model for what successful workforce development strategies can be.
One of the strategies that are driving success in terms of workforce development in St. Cloud is the Skilled Worker Initiative, a STEM-oriented program that has been underway for the last 18 to 24 months. As Schatz explained, “As industry continues to become more and more technology-oriented, having more certificate programs that are technology-oriented will continue to become increasingly important, and that’s where the Skilled Worker Initiative came in.”
Currently, eighty percent of the available careers in St. Cloud do not require a four-year degree, so a primary goal of workforce development initiatives in St. Cloud is to educate educators, parents and students alike as to the value of STEM-based education and the numerous career opportunities available locally.
Schatz noted, “Jobs in STEM-related businesses – these are not just jobs, they are indeed careers that are both professionally, as well as financially, rewarding. These are avenues that have real, life-long career paths for individuals who choose to pursue them.”
Currently, there are upwards of 4500 job opportunities in the St. Cloud region, all of which are conveniently listed on JobSpot, an online talent portal that highlights career opportunities in a three-county region, many of which are entry level positions.
Cruikshank explained that the portal, “automatically populates every night based on where jobs are posted. Employers don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to pay to post. It also provides tools for job seekers, job prep tools, as well as tools for employers.” When positions are filled and removed, the portal automatically updates daily to reflect those changes.
One of the best ways to inform students of the many opportunities and educational pathways that are available in St. Cloud is to expose them to what is available earlier on. “We’re focusing on how to get youth into the different employers, experience what it’s like to be there,” said Tammy Biery, Executive Director of Career Solutions. This is achieved through on-site tours and teacher in-service days where students and educators have an opportunity to get a firsthand look at STEM-based careers. Career exploration opportunities are presented to students at the elementary, high-school and post-secondary levels to ensure that they are aware of the various career pathways available to them in in-demand fields like manufacturing, construction and transportation.
Since 2000, Career Solutions’ CareerONE program has been dedicated to improving success in and out of the classroom for at-risk youth by providing students between the ages of fourteen and seventeen work readiness and soft skills development training. The summer youth employment program runs for five weeks and for their participation students can earn up to a $1200 stipend if all program outcomes are met. The program also provides an early pathway to lifelong employment for students.
Young people in St. Cloud can also develop skills and have fun doing it through the Vex Robotics program which was introduced in 2012. In its inaugural year, twenty-two teams competed across the state and only a short time later, the number of teams has grown to over five hundred! Now, there are more Vex Robotics teams in the State of Minnesota than there are hockey teams.
“It teaches kids technical skills that STEM employers like myself are looking for, including mechanical, electrical and software engineering,” said Schatz, as well as soft skills like teamwork, leadership, communication and project management, which are in demand at STEM-based companies like Park Industries where heavy equipment is manufactured.
Indeed, Park Industries is not only a major employer in St. Cloud but also a leader on the workforce development front that supports talent development. Further to hosting tours and participating in initiatives like Manufacturing on the Road, a mobile tour of a group of manufacturers sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, Park Industries offers internships and scholarships at St. Cloud Technical Community College (SCTCC) and St. Cloud State University (SCSU).
Schatz highlighted that while, “businesses are actually competing for the same talent but working cooperatively to get kids interested,” they are sharing available candidates that are not necessarily a fit for their operations. She added, “Even if one out of three are employed at Park, that’s a victory because we’re still getting kids interested in manufacturing.”
Initiatives like the Skilled Worker Initiative have proven successful, with programs at SCTCC experiencing a 3.67 percent increase in enrollment, which means interest has been piqued in STEM-based education and related programs.
Park Industries also partnered with SCSU for the Huskies Invent Club. This event took place over the course of a weekend and thirty-five students from various disciplines, including engineering and computer science, came together to address five unique problems currently being faced by the company. The event was so successful and the solutions so innovative that within one business day Park Industries went to work designing and instituting one of the solutions offered up by the student participants.
In St. Cloud, even educational institutions are coming together to support local workforce development efforts through the development of relevant programming. Acknowledging that a four-year degree is not required by the majority of employers locally, the 2+2 program was created and enables students to earn a two-year degree at SCTCC and then transfer to SCSU to continue their academic endeavors.
Certainly, for Schatz and her collaborators in St. Cloud there is a need to, “become more creative about how we think about education and what it means to be educated.” GSDC and its partners have hosted Talent Summits, a webinar series and other events like human resource focus groups – but its most important role is that of facilitator.
“That’s really why we’re in existence as the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC): collaboration,” said Cruikshank. “We get the right people in a room together to make those decisions and move them forward,” which is why it has been as successful as it has.
Further to education, efforts are being undertaken in St. Cloud to reduce the barriers to entry into the workplace that exist locally and regionally, two of which are transportation and childcare, problems that can be solved through employer flexibility. Jobseekers from traditionally underrepresented demographics like veterans, immigrants, women, people with disabilities, retirees and the elderly can be trained to meet the specific job requirements but may need to be accommodated in certain ways to help them overcome the barriers to employment they face, be it mobility, transportation, childcare, language barriers or similar.
According to Cruikshank, “Employers are more than willing to train those individuals to the specific needs of what the job responsibilities entail but they want to find that right associate or that right jobseeker that has strong soft skills.” They may, however, need to rethink some of their recruitment and hiring strategies.
“Right now, across the state, there are more open positions than there are people to fill them and that’s not even including whether or not they are qualified,” Biery explained. “Employers need to understand that to attract the workers, you need to meet them where they are at, versus putting up a sign that says ‘now hiring’ and expecting that vacancy will be filled. You need to go out into the community.”
Workforce development efforts have been successful thus far, but there is always more to be done. “We are always looking to see who’s doing something well that we can learn from,” said Cruikshank. St. Cloud is not afraid to learn new things or do things differently and this sentiment is shared by local employers as well.
A focus in 2019 will be on refreshing employer expectations and how that is reflected in the language used in job postings. For instance, during the recession job descriptions became more complex and required more of candidates to raise the bar and screen out the best candidates, as the labor pool was deep.
Now it is time to review job requirements and winnow them down to necessities rather than wants to ensure the economy can continue to grow and prosper. “We’ve planted a seed and it’s going to take a while for some of these initiatives to bear fruit that will be sustainable for us,” said Schatz, but their efforts have started to blossom and they are sure to be remarkable when they bloom.