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Published April 02, 2013, 10:48 AM

Lack of vocational workers starts in high school

BRAINERD, Minn. (AP) — As some Minnesota companies struggle to fill manufacturing jobs, some people are blaming a decline in high schools' shop class offerings.

BRAINERD, Minn. (AP) — As some Minnesota companies struggle to fill manufacturing jobs, some people are blaming a decline in high schools' shop class offerings.

They say too many young people aren't being exposed to industrial technology careers, in part because the federal No Child Behind Initiative has induced high schools to shift resources toward core subject areas of math and reading. Shop classes like machining, welding and robotics are being crowded out, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

"Those are considered elective classes in almost every school system," said Mike Lindstrom, a retired industrial technology teacher from Coon Rapids who is active in the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association. "And electives right now are on the endangered species list."

Manufacturing jobs in Minnesota pay an average salary of more than $56,000. But some companies find it hard to find enough qualified workers. That includes Graphic Packaging, a company in Crosby that builds packaging machines.

Human resources manager Theresa Schermerhorn said she recruits across the state for people with a background in robotics or computer-aided machines, and for people who have electrical or mechanical skills. She said those skills are tougher to find because they aren't valued as they used to be.

"Parents want their children to go to college," Schermerhorn said. "That's been this last generation's push. You have to have a college degree to have a good job. And that's not true anymore."

To stimulate interest in such jobs, Central Lakes College in Brainerd has a career exploration day every year for high school students. This year's drew 2,200 students from 21 high schools. There was a high tech welding simulator in one corner and a robotics demonstration in the other. There were kayaks, ATVs and snowmobiles, all made from parts manufactured locally.

One student who found it appealing was Tyler McAllister, a junior from Pine River-Backus High School whose farm background has gotten him used to tinkering with machinery, welding and building things. McAllister wants to work in manufacturing, but he thinks most of his classmates wouldn't consider it.

"A lot of people are going to the more high-end jobs, getting away from the hands-on stuff, kind of blue collar work," McAllister said. "They're more into video games and that sort of stuff versus being outside building."

For those students, college seems a natural step after high school.

Claire Roberts, a junior at Staples-Motley High School, is headed that way. She said her teachers don't talk about manufacturing and it's not something she thinks about.

Ronn Redemske has trouble attracting students to the machine trades program he teaches at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. The program has room for 22 students, but only 20 are enrolled.

Even so, Central Lakes plans to double the size of the program next fall, adding classes in robotics, automation and plastics. The federal grant-funded effort is in response to the needs of regional manufacturing companies.

The rationale seems compelling: For those who graduate, job placement is nearly 100 percent.

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