Minnesota is on the brink of a workforce shortage.

Roy E. Smith, director of education and talent development at the state Department of Iron Range and Rehabilitation, says that there was a push for four-year degrees while sweeping industrial arts programs out the door between the 1980s and the early 2000s. And that shift in economic focus, plus an aging working class moving into retirement and the exodus of many Iron Range families (in 1981, Smith had 400 students in his graduating high school class compared with the 120 students his daughter will join in getting her diploma in 2020) has put employers in a tough position of finding enough workers to maintain a rising economy.

Last year, the state reported an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent — the lowest in nearly two decades. But the good news was undercut with the fact that regardless of having 3 million people employed, there remained roughly 123,000 job openings — the most since 2000. In January, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a former lieutenant governor, told a sheet metal manufacturer that the state’s “big challenge is that we need to make sure we have enough workers to fill the great jobs that are being created.”

Much of those jobs were attributed to an increase in openings paying less than $15 an hour, according to an analysis from the Star Tribune. But Roy Smith also cites the rise in “blue collar positions” in diesel mechanics and truck driving, among others. And for such reasons, the state has embarked on investing “over $12 million over the past decade in reinvigorating technology programs in high schools across the Iron Range,” Smith says, so students have opportunities to “train with state-of-the-art equipment and matriculate into tech programs in college.”

“Despite the lack of students, the region has five technical schools offering technical trade certificates,” Smith adds. “We need all hands on deck. There’s only a certain percentage of workers gained from birth rates or immigrants moving in from other parts of the country of the world. We need a viable stream of workers, including women and people who have been marginalized by society. We need to up their skills and get them into the game.”

For Smith, he believes the inclusion of women in “non-traditional jobs” is one direct solution to the statewide need for workers.

An example of progress comes this year, as Hibbing Community College, is launching a $100,000 program called EMPOWER Women’s Grant to help train women into five non-traditional career fields. The Minnesota Women’s Foundation raised the funds for the initiative aiming to provide financial assistance for enrollment into areas of studies, such as diesel mechanics, heating and cooling, truck driving, industrial systems, law enforcement and technology security, and offering assistance with tuition and childcare.

HCC received the grant last year. Since that time, the college has partnered with the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency based in Eveleth that promotes businesses and workforce development.

The history of non-traditional jobs for women across the state — and specific to the Iron Range — has been plagued with controversy. In 1973, the region suffered a mining bust, with an unemployment rate of 10 percent. A year later, nine steel companies settled with the U.S. Department of Justice and Labor to provide 20 percent of new jobs to women and minorities. That deal combined with a market upswing that led to $900 million in construction projects planned at taconite plants, along with women landing jobs at various mining companies.

One of those women was Lois Jensen, who worked as a laborer, grinding mill helper and truck driver, among other positions. In 1988, Jensen sued Eveleth Mines for sexual harassment. “I didn’t want to file charges, report these things or even talk about them,” Jensen told the Mesabi Daily News last December. “I wanted a job where I didn’t have to go to work everyday wondering what was going to happen next. I didn’t want special treatment. I wanted the harassment to stop.” Five years later, a state judge ordered the mining company to educate its employees regarding sexual harassment. The Jensen v. Eveleth Mines class action lawsuit finally reached a settlement in 1998. It was the first of its kind. But it hasn’t been the last. Sexual harassment has been named a leading reason why the percentage of women employed in blue-collar jobs plunged from 2000 to 2016, according to academics and employment lawyers who spoke with The New York Times.

Smith says the state has taken measures to make work safe for women looking for employment.

“I have a daughter at home and I’d like to see her and any other girl or women do whatever they want,” Smith says. “I’m a big proponent of the #MeToo movement — as I should be as a man in society. In regards to the EMPOWER grant and technical jobs, we need them. We can’t afford to have people sitting on the sidelines, underemployed or disengaged from the workforce.”

Historically, women have long been more prominent in healthcare and pre-engineering programs in colleges across the state, Smith says, but he has been seeing growth in the industrial arts and trades. He pointed out that Mesabi Range Community College, a technical school, that has a student body of about 43 percent female, according to U.S. News.

When Smith discusses a people marginalized by society, he means “not just women, but others who have been disenfranchised in our state.”

A recent article in The New York Times found that the state’s unemployment rate was lower than the national average and has been making progress in hiring African American employees. But even though the black unemployment rate dropped from 23.5 percent in 2011 to 7.5 percent this year, the numbers are over twice the rate for white employers. Also, a report from state Department of Employment and Economic Development, titled, “Immigrants and the Economy”, there is a much needed desire to employ the 450,000 foreign-born residents to maintain a steadily growing economy, according to MinnPost.

As Smith tells it: “A number of people here work two or three jobs and are trying to get by, but with a little training in skilled trades, they could step up into a career with a much better wage and benefits and become more contributing members of society.”

The state does have several technical colleges already helping men and women get direct access to an education and paycheck. But the current educational opportunities and low unemployment rate are not going to continually impress if businesses are still in need of workers.

And that is why individual businesses are taking proactive steps to training employees for tomorrow. In a recent piece from Business North, Hibbing-based L&M Radiator announced partnering with MRCC to start the Accelerated Welding Institute, where students complete 8-to-10-week programs leading to entry-level jobs. Smith believes that programs found at the Institute, combined with others like EMPOWER, are improving on the state’s struggle with not having enough workers.

“If you have the right skills, there’s probably not been a better time to be in Minnesota looking for work,” Smith says.

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