Where is business in Minnesota's vo-tech education?

Could we get a little help here, please?

I’ve written about what three executives have said about the state of vocational-technical education in Minnesota during a conference on the subject last week.

They’ve recognized its importance. They see the use of a strong, organized apprenticeship system. They’re willing to help.

And Bill Symonds of Harvard, who organized the gathering, said the success of vo-tech education hinges on industry:

“The role of business is critical. We need to work in partnership; it can’t just be done by educators. If executives want to be competitive, we have to get them thinking about how they’re going to develop their workforce. The jobs are going somewhere. “

And yet all of the calls I’ve heard so far for a stronger system have come from K-12 and college administrators.

As South Central College President Keith Stover told a MnSCU gathering on the subject last week:

“We don’t have businesses in the lead the way we need them in the lead.”

Why is that? Why haven’t they pushed for something that seems to be in their own interest? And what would it take to get more of them on board?

First off, the Northern European model for vot-ech education and apprenticeships — such as the one discussed in Symonds’ Pathways to Prosperity report — seems like an unlikely fit, at least at the outset. European counties such as Germany with strong vocational-technical education and apprenticeship programs tend to have highly structured systems in which government, business associations and trade unions work together.

Simply put, government gives resources for training programs, workers enter into apprenticeships knowing they’ll have well-paid, stable work at the end, and industry hires and helps train workers knowing that they won’t be poached after it has invested in them.

But that takes a long-term commitment to carry out effectively. Many European companies understand that, and ride out recessions while keeping employees on the payroll.

By contrast, American businesses — especially publicly owned ones — are notoriously focused on the short term, hiring one year and laying off the next as the business cycle goes up and down.

And in contrast to the highly centralized German system, Minnesota apparently has a splintered array of vocational-technical programs and apprenticeships — a situation that President Terrence Leas of Riverland Community College called “chaotic.”

Do Minnesota businesses have the long-term commitment necessary to pull it off? Or would they bail at the first sign of economic distress — only to scramble for employees again when the economy picks up? Why haven’t they done more so far, and what would it take for them to step up?

It’s a big set of questions, but as a start I just put them to a couple of panelists from the business seminar at last week’s conference.

I asked Daniel Meyer, president of International Precision Machining, an operation that’s arguably similar to the type of German company that is knee deep in the apprenticeship system.

First, he said American companies haven’t seriously considered mimicking the European system, because they’ve been losing jobs for years and haven’t seen the need to add significant numbers of employees.

But that may be changing, he told me:

“I think manufacturing in this county is coming into a new time when the opportunities to build companies are happening again. Chinese wages are going up (making their products less competitive with ours), and shipping costs from overseas are up.”

Yet he wasn’t sure whether Minnesota businesses were ready for that kind of commitment — at least small-businesses such as his:

“You need to have a long-term horizon. But when the next recession hits, what will they really do? I don’t know if I’d be totally different from them.”

I haven’t looked at the average size of companies in Minnesota and Germany that are involved in apprenticeships and educational partnerships, but larger companies might be better able to handle a fully integrated vocational-technical education system.

Leas of  Riverland Community College told me a 100-employee firm might have the resources to commit, whereas mom-and-pop businesses might not:

“They’re too busy keeping their heads above water (to manage the necessary relationships). That’s where maybe the state or local chamber of commerce could come in and help.”

He said financial self-interest should drive companies toward setting up a strong vocational-technical education and apprenticeship system.

Even Meyer, despite his hesitations, seemed to agree:

“Businesses that are successful are going to figure out how to make that work.”

So how do we bring business into the fold?

Leas suggested tax incentives, as well as state- and federally funded apprenticeship and training programs:

“There is a role for government to ‘seed’ this.”

Meyer said he’d consider reimbursements for hiring, and Symonds said tax incentives for hiring “could be very significant” in getting business interested.

But Symonds focused on a relatively simple step that he calls “the first component for workforce readiness”: career counseling.

He described it as the fastest, most effective way for industry to help prepare students for the job force — telling them about various fields, what the demands and pay are, and what education and training they need to get there.

And it’s something that many career counselors — most of whom got a four-year degree and so know little outside of that world — aren’t as equipped to do, he said.

At last week’s conference, a working group proposed a plan to recruit retirees to help with the counseling.

Smart move, Symonds said:

“If the government goes to a company and says, ‘Add five jobs, that could be a problem. If it asks the company to give career counseling, it wouldn’t be a big expenditure.”

So, that was a quick-hit look at the issue through the lens of last week’s conference. I’m curious to see where this leads in the coming months. Stay tuned.