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  ·   By Erick Ajax and Traci Tapani, Star Tribune   ·  Link to Article

Workers in training programs should also have access to federal education grants

When José moved to Minnesota to be closer to family after his wife passed away he didn’t know what his job prospects would be. A former master gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps for 24 years, José entered the civilian workforce with many skills, but found that he wasn’t trained in the specific area needed to become a professional metal former. With three teenagers at home, he knew he needed training in order to get a middle-skill job. He enrolled in a fast-track program which placed him in a four-year apprenticeship. Today, having completed his apprenticeship, José is a Class A sheet metal fabrication worker.

Jobs like the one José has require more than a high school education, but not a bachelor’s degree, and they are an important part of our state and national economy. According to an analysis by the National Skills Coalition, just over half of all job openings in the next five years will be for such middle-skill jobs. In Minnesota these jobs account for 51 percent of the labor market while only 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained for them. Potential employees for these middle-skill jobs come from many different backgrounds, but many encounter financial barriers when they seek formal training.

As business owners in Minnesota we understand this skills gap all too well. That’s why we (and many other businesses) partner with community and technical colleges to design curricula that give working students access to career and technical education programs that prepare them for in-demand jobs. Many of our employees don’t have the luxury of taking night classes at community colleges; they might not have access to child care, or they live out in rural areas, or can’t afford the financial burden. This is why our community college partnerships are so crucial.

Student employees are able to “earn-and-learn” by accessing a virtual classroom on our job site, earning credits, and working. Fast-track programs like José’s propel students directly into apprenticeships where they can earn a middle-class salary and support their families.

But there are challenges. Our country doesn’t invest in business and community college partnerships the way we ought to. And our investments in education and training programs don’t reach the people who need them most: aspiring students, many of whom face barriers like being single parents, from low-income families, or ex-offenders, or needing to work full time while they learn. Many of these students need financial aid to pursue career-advancing skills in manufacturing, health care, or other high-demand middle-skill occupations.

For example, many programs do not meet outdated federal requirements for financial aid or Pell grants — either because the programs are short term, or because they don’t award academic credit. This hurts students, but it is also a real hindrance for small and medium-sized businesses in Minnesota that are looking for skilled workers but lack big training budgets.

There is a role for President-elect Donald Trump and Congress to play: reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act to make sure they are targeting the needs of working learners and businesses. This means extending Pell grants to people who want to complete short-term, occupational training programs. Not all jobs require four-year degrees, and it makes economic sense to extend Pell grants to people pursuing a license, certificate or industry-recognized certification in order to move up in the labor market.

Congress also should ensure we invest in partnerships between business and community colleges. Those investments should lead to programs aligned with the skill demands of employers, and to people earning recognized postsecondary credentials.

Minnesota businesses understand that by investing in our students, we are investing in our economy. Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and the Perkins Act and is one way to keep Minnesota’s economy working for everyone so that every American has a decent shot at breaking into the middle class.

Erick Ajax is an owner of EJ Ajax and Sons, a metal forming company in Fridley. Traci Tapani is co-president of Wyoming Machine, a precision sheet metal fabrication firm in Stacy.

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