MSU campus

The head of Minnesota's 37 state colleges and universities met with Mankato business and civic leaders on the Minnesota State University campus to discuss how higher education can help fill a growing gap between jobs and available workers.

MANKATO — The Minnesota State System of 37 colleges and universities sends 40,000 graduates a year into Minnesota's economy. It's not nearly enough.

The number of jobs in the state is forecast to grow by 130,000 each year during the next decade.

"As large as it is, it is nowhere what is needed," said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the Minnesota State system. "So I'm here to listen."

Malhotra was at Minnesota State University Wednesday, part of a statewide tour to hear how the state's 30 community and technical colleges and seven state universities can better help fill that projected gap between jobs and workers.

In the audience was Mankato-North Mankato's movers and shakers. North Mankato's mayor and Mankato's mayor-elect were on hand, along with the school superintendent. So were Mankato's state senator and state representative. MSU administrators were attended en masse, and corporate executives included those from a quarry, a foundry, a telecom company, an engineering firm, property developers, a law firm and more.

"You don't get very many opportunities where you have business leaders, community leaders, higher-education partners, K-12 partners, political leaders all in one room," Malhotra said.

Local employers have been talking for years about the need for schools and colleges to generate more workers with the specialized skills required for modern manufacturing jobs. With the aging of the baby boom generation, the worker shortage also is projected to include most other jobs, ranging from personal care attendants to those requiring bachelor and graduate-level college degrees.

Mankato Area Public Schools Supt. Sheri Allen asked one of the first questions at Wednesday's roundtable discussion and demonstrated how the various institutions rely on one another. Allen was interested in increasing the number of career technical education teachers — the ones that prepare high school students for work, providing instruction in everything from welding to child care to the basics of engineering.

Allen wondered if MSU could create a degree program to produce licensed career technical education teachers, noting that south-central Minnesotans looking for that licensure must now go to Bemidji State or Winona State.

"I know you can't offer everything," Allen said, before noting the number of locals that might be interested in that teaching path if it was more convenient. "They're not going to go to Bemidji."

Already working on it, Malhotra responded.

The Minnesota State System will be asking the Legislature to appropriate extra dollars for strategic investments, including $15 million for new career technical education programs.

State Sen. Nick Frentz, noting that southern Minnesota is an agricultural hub, wondered why local high school students are going to South Dakota State University and other out-of-state universities for agricultural degrees.

MSU Vice President Marilyn Wells stood up to talk about the agriculture-focused minors that MSU students can earn to supplement other degrees, and, coming soon ... .

"We do have a forthcoming degree in agronomy," Wells said.

"That's an example of being nimble," Malhotra joked. "You ask for it, and we have it for you."

He also talked of ongoing efforts to connect with employers looking for specialized education for their existing workers, including MSU's program educating workers on the Iron Range at their work sites.

"So we are extending our landscape beyond our institutions," he said.

Malhotra said the system is striving to recognize the value of knowledge that workers already have gained at their job — and give workers credit for it rather than requiring them to repeat it in a university setting.

"There's a lot of learning going on within professional work spaces," he said. "So the question we have to ask ourselves, 'Are we validating all kinds of education? ... If they already know it, why make them sit through 16 weeks in the classroom?'"

The Minnesota State System is contemplating other changes aimed at making it easier for more Minnesotans to earn a college degree, including a proposal to offer two or three years of tuition-free education for students from families with incomes of $85,000 or less. (The Legislature would have to kick in about $25 million to pay for it.)

Cheryl Tefer, a member of the system's Board of Trustees, said the board has even discussed whether it makes sense in the 21st century to suspend a college's operations for June, July and August.

"Most of our students aren't having to go home to milk the cows in the summer or help with the harvest," Tefer said.

Malhotra, Tefer and MSU President Richard Davenport urged the business owners and community leaders to stay engaged with the Minnesota State System, promising it is sincerely interested in changing to meet the needs of the state.

"Your feedback, your engagement, your partnership will be the compass," Malhotra said.

Tefer, a nurse and former community college nursing professor, said her two years on the Board of Trustees has left her amazed at how powerful the system of colleges and universities can be.

"The system can do for you things that are unimaginable," Tefer said. "We just have to imagine them."

Later Wednesday, Malhotra and South Central College President Annette Parker hosted a similar roundtable at SCC's Faribault campus.

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