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MnSCU surveys employers about needed job skills

by Alex Friedrich, Minnesota Public Radio

April 30, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Employers across the country are saying too many American workers don’t have the right skills to fill open positions. In Minnesota, the State Colleges and Universities system is surveying employers in the region to find out what skills they’re not seeing in recent graduates and older workers — and what else employers need from higher education.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone announced last month a new effort to better match MnSCU programs to needed skills. Since then, system officials have held more than 30 listening sessions in fields such as health care, transportation and engineering.

At one such session last week in Minneapolis, the focus was on information technology, which is a growth industry. In the past three years the number of IT job postings in Minnesota has tripled to about 15,000, even during an economic downturn. But up to 10 percent of those jobs were unfilled, according to Advance IT Minnesota, an office within MnSCU that aims to develop a stronger IT workforce in the state.

That gap could double in the next decade if things don’t change, because Minnesota’s workforce is aging and the number of high school graduates is declining.

So MnSCU officials recently talked with members of the Minnesota High Tech Association. Executives from about a dozen companies got together at the Minneapolis Convention Center to discuss what they need in the work force. What they said was pretty typical of what businesspeople have been telling MnSCU.

Tech executives — like their counterparts across the state — need everything. It just depends on the size of the company.

Joseph Ward of RJA Dispersions stressed broad technical skills — for example, a chemical engineer who knows computing.

“I’d ask for more cross-training in the engineering disciplines so people can do a bit of IT, or maybe more than a bit when it’s needed,” said Ward.

And some executives said job applicants aren’t required to have a bachelor’s degree, since technology changes a lot over four years. Instead, some suggested offering technical skills in two-year degrees — or in even shorter classes or certificate courses.

Executives at some larger companies said they don’t necessarily want the focus to be on tech skills that they can outsource to other countries.

“Technical will always be there. In fact, it’s easier to teach the technical skills,” said Tim Dokken with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. “It’s much more difficult to train the soft skills and how to get people to influence, collaborate, work together.”

Those companies prefer well-rounded people. They say many tech workers have liberal arts backgrounds and shifted into technology.

It’s not just skilled graduates that executives wanted out of MnSCU. Lynn Hunt of Hunt Utilities Group says rural employees need more access to education. That means training programs run at their facilities, or online.

“What I’ve seen is the need of reaching both the older and the younger faster at home,” Hunt said. “They don’t have the time to take from their jobs. A very, very small company — you can’t let them go. Each person there is so needed.”

MnSCU will use the information it gathers at the listening sessions to shape the programs it’ll offer in the future. And it will update the survey every few years.

But there are some who question the premise of the MnSCU project, including one of its own faculty members. Monte Bute, a sociology professor at Metropolitan State University, says there’s no proof of a jobs/skills mismatch.

The skilled workers and students are already there, he says. Employers are just unable — or unwilling — to pay wages high enough to attract them.

At the Minneapolis listening session, Bute scolded the business executives in attendance, noting that they pushed for budget cuts and lower taxes while expecting even more out of a strained public education system.

Bute said the government shouldn’t pay for training or education that companies themselves should be providing.

“When is business going to start picking up their share of the tab, and quit expecting families and students to pick up the bulk of the tab?” he said.

MnSCU officials will hold sessions for the agricultural sector in June and July. It’ll address other sectors of the state’s economy, such as financial services and insurance, in the fall.