Christensen Farms DEED grant

A company with about 850 employees based in Sleepy Eye, Christensen Farms is working with Minnesota State University to train its employees.

The state granted $300,000 to Minnesota State University and about $50,000 to South Central College for job-training services the institutions will provide to two local employers. Both companies hope to prepare existing workers for higher-level roles as leaders near retirement.

Christensen Farms, a Sleepy Eye pork producer with more than 850 employees, is partnering with MSU to train workers in communication and leadership. SCC will train employees at Precision Press, a commercial printing company in North Mankato owned by Taylor Corp., to foster mentorship and improve worker satisfaction.

Large firms such as Christensen and Taylor Corp. are often led by longtime employees, said SCC Dean of Business and Industry Jim Hanson. The trend has led to a problem of many company leaders being close to retirement and a need to train potential replacements.

In several discussions with Taylor Corp. over the past year, SCC administrators heard about a dual need to improve the skills of current employees while finding a reliable source of new workers amid a shortage plaguing the manufacturing industry.

“They just need employees at various levels, entry-level positions for the most part, but at the same time they want to reward those that have stuck with them and create that family-like mentality,” Hanson said of large companies like Taylor Corp. The North Mankato company has about 12,000 employees.

Nichole Bettner, a human resources professional for Taylor Corp., said leaders also want to address the falling number of college graduates who choose to work in the printing industry.

Production work can seem mundane, she said. The company wants SCC to aid in evaluating tasks and finding areas where variety can be introduced to improve worker satisfaction.

“Although the industry is changing and becoming more technologically advanced, there may be a lingering perception that working in the field is physically demanding, dirty, and labor intensive,” Bettner wrote in an email.

“This makes it more difficult to find qualified, skilled press operators in the area.”

Company officials were encouraged when the college mentioned grants through the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, which has a main objective of training workers to retain high-quality jobs in the state.

Tammy Bohlke, a director in MSU’s Center for Workforce Professional Education, said Christensen Farms came to the university in the spring with two major needs that led to an MJSP grant.

Many people in leadership roles are near retirement age, so the company wants to train and promote talent from within.

And with a growing number of Christensen’s workers not fluent in English, the business wants company leaders and other employees to learn basic Spanish.

About a quarter of Christensen employees come from Mexico with visas as “nonimmigrant NAFTA professionals,” a distinction allowing citizens of Canada and Mexico to work in the U.S., said Val Johnson, president of human resources. Those at the Sleepy Eye firm have a post-secondary education in agribusiness.

Johnson said the company hires the professionals in positions where domestic applicants are scarce. The proportion of Mexican workers at the firm is expected to increase over the next few years.

The company wants MSU faculty to provide development opportunities that go beyond individual training it has offered employees in the past, Bohlke said.

“To send one or two people to a leadership conference or an MBA program doesn’t really change the whole culture there,” she said.

The local partnerships are two of 13 formed statewide by workforce development grants from the Department of Employment and Economic Development, a press release states. More than 2,500 Minnesota workers will get training funded by $2.2 million.

The colleges must regularly report to the state data to show whether the training improves business processes and retention.

Key statistics that DEED monitors are if college-affiliated grant programs lead to promotions and pay bumps for more workers, Bohlke said.

The Center for Workforce Professional Education earns this type of grant three to five times a year, she said. The next application deadline is Jan. 24 with awards announced in March.

Despite administrative hurdles of grant applications, SCC’s Hanson said, the grant is “a great way to create a curriculum where there’s not a curriculum in place.”

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