Skills gap focus of Minnesota high tech employers

8:35 PM, Oct 9, 2012   |    comments
Senator Al Franken tours DataCard in Minnetonka
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MINNETONKA -- Minnesota employers are working with trade groups, educators and government leaders to address critical skills gaps in the state's work force.

"Almost 50 percent of manufacturers in this state are offering jobs and can't fill them, because people don't have the skills," Senator Al Franken told KARE Tuesday, citing surveys conducted by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED.

Franken spoke at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce summit on the issue of building a skilled workforce. He said he was particulary encouraged by some of the training programs being developed by Hennepin Technical College and other community colleges in the state.

"I've been going around to a lot of high schools and junior highs with manufacturers, with people in these industries that need skilled workers," Franken said.

"And we've been trying to tell them that manufacturing now isn't your grandfather's manufacturing. It isn't dark, dirty and dangerous. It's high tech stuff."

The chamber of commerce has made closing that know-how gap one of its key priorities.

"You've got to talk to schools, to make sure counselors are telling children maybe you don't necessarily need a four-year degree," David Olson, the chamber president told KARE.

"Maybe you can have a two-year degree. And then parents have to be okay with that. They have to say to themselves, 'Okay, Johnny, maybe that's just fine,' and he becomes a welder for $80,000 a year."

Olson said it's equally important for those entering the job market to hone their so-called "soft skills," or personal assets that would apply to a variety of fields.

"When we talk to employers they'll tell you, 'We'll train them on how to run a welder, and we'll train them on how to run this machine, but they need to be here on time'," Olson said.

"Thirty minutes is 30 minutes. Can they write? Can they communicate? Can they work in teams?"

Later in the day Franken toured the Minnetonka headquarters of DataCard, a high tech company that started in the 1970's and now has customers in 120 countries.

The company manufactures the high volume machines that produce personalized credit cards and secure ID such as passports and national identity cards. The machines capture a stream of encrypted data and imbed them into documents that are virtually impossible to forge.

"We have a lot of technical skills that are represented here in this building," DataCard CEO Todd Wilkinson explained.

"And trying to have the best in class in every field is always a challenge for us. So we're always recruiting. We never want to have lower standards."

Wilkinson said his production team ranges from assemblers on the floor to trade school grads to PhD level mechanical and electrical engineers.  And with a global clientele DataCard hires people who can navigate other cultures.

"I would tell anyone looking forward, in terms of what they need to be ready for a global economy, is to bring multi-language skills," Wilkinson said.

"And they should have an understanding of the business environment outside of the US. And technology skills are still important to us."

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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