U.S. Sen. Franken tours high school, offers thoughts at first-time program
With state and federal guidelines turning the heat up regarding literacy, science and math, many school districts have responded by sacrificing activities, courses and even departments in other fields.
The city, chamber of commerce and school district on Tuesday used a first-time event to promote another route, one that is prevalent in this region: manufacturing.
An impressive audience of local city administrators, company CEOs, and elected officials – including U.S. Senator Al Franken – attended the program at Forest Lake High School.
“You couldn’t be doing anything more important, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of our economic competitiveness,” Franken said in remarks that opened the 3.5-hour event held during Minnesota Manufacturers Week.
Franken said a skills gap exists in Minnesota and the country as a whole, and the gap is widening. He cited a study that found about half of manufacturers in the state are struggling to find workers qualified to fill openings.
Touting a bill he authored that aims to address the skills gap through a competitive grant program that would create partnerships between two-year colleges and businesses, Franken said he often suggests manufacturing careers to students.
“Manufacturing isn’t that picture that a lot of people have about manufacturing: dark, dangerous and dirty,” he said. “The skills you use, the jobs you have in manufacturing these days are high-skilled jobs, and they aren’t repetitive, boring tasks over and over again.”
There is still a perception that two-year schools are a ceiling, Franken said, when they should be looked at as a platform. He has heard of workers whose manufacturing employers pay for several levels of schooling. When completed, the worker has a degree or two, a good job and zero college debt.
More and more, manufacturers need skilled laborers. Promoting such careers is a step towards solving several problems, Franken said.
“This (event) speaks to our global competitiveness, this speaks to getting people jobs, this speaks to prosperity and this speaks to college affordability,” he said.
Forest Lake Schools Superintendent Linda Madsen said the district continues to embrace its strong roots in industrial technology.
“We have not eliminated those (secondary curriculum) departments but instead have worked to make them stronger, even during very difficult financial times,” she told the audience.
School on display
The subsequent tour of the industrial technology classrooms opened eyes for many in the crowd. Visitors heard from teachers who articulated distinctive qualities of their courses and relayed success stories.
Auto Tech instructor Frank Malone told Franken and others how students are taught the principles behind repairs rather than memorizing every step-by-step fix. They are given a simulated budget and must plan out a maintenance schedule based on which vehicle they pick.
Joe Jurasin impressed the group with examples of recent creations from his Cabinetmaking I and II classes. Eight of his former students own their own cabinet shops and dozens more work in the industry. The high interest from students comes because it is a field where they work through problems and figure out solutions on their own, Jurasin said.
“They want to do it because it makes sense to them,” he said.
Department chair Kevin Rivard walked tour participants through projects from his Drafting class and explained the course’s crossover into engineering and architecture.
Down the hall, Metals instructor Kelly Nicholls discussed opportunities relating to an equipment donation and unveiled a lofty goal for his team of students designing a high-mileage vehicle. In the school’s third year of competition, the team hopes to design and build a vehicle with a fuel efficiency of 500 miles per gallon. The most advanced Metals students have created snowmobile trailers and crank-down fish houses.
Junior high teacher Jim Carter talked about the uniqueness of the district’s industrial tech coursework at that level.
The tour ended outside, where industrial tech students showed off the house they are building. Principal Steve Massey called it the crown jewel of the department and a capstone encompassing all the courses. The house, the fifth made by FLHS students, will be auctioned off for use after its completion in January.
The program continued with presentations by Pine Technical College President Dr. Robert Musgrove, Lester Jones of Teamvantage and Greg Evgen of Regal Machine.