By Mary Jane Smetanka
Hutchinson, the proud home of almost two dozen high-tech businesses and the largest 3M manufacturing plant in North America, faces a workforce crisis.
Workers at many of those plants are aging. Baby boomers are retiring. Jobs have gone begging as many of Hutchinson’s high school graduates leave town for four-year colleges, some later discovering that an expensive four-year degree was not really what they wanted.
City leaders put their heads together and decided a solution was right in their backyard. They started the TigerPath Skilled Workforce Development Initiative in September 2015, and the program was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2017 City of Excellence Award.
Developing its future workforce
With TigerPath, Hutchinson hopes to develop its future workforce right in its high school, a partnership that involves the city, schools, manufacturing businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, and the local community and technical college. A big part of the job is to promote the idea that a four-year degree isn’t a prerequisite to earn a good living.
“I would say the pendulum has swung too far, the idea that everyone has to go to college,” says Miles Seppelt, Hutchinson’s economic development director. “The world needs plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics, and you can’t export those jobs to China. No robot is coming to your house to rewire your bathroom.”
He adds, “We want to hold onto our people. The best pool of candidates are the people we already have here.”
The TigerPath initiative involves redesigning education at Hutchinson High School (where the mascot is a tiger), building pathways between high school and college, developing relationships between school and industry, upgrading the high school’s technical education facilities and equipment, and debunking stereotypes about manufacturing jobs.
Many young people think working in manufacturing means low pay and dirty factories, Seppelt says. But welders at some Hutchinson businesses are making $70,000 a year with overtime, and today’s manufacturing plants look more like Star Trek than the grimy dungeons of old.
“Some kids balance chemical equations in their head and become dentists or doctors, and others can visualize and make things with their hands,” Seppelt says. “What are you interested in and what are you good at? We can use that to guide you toward a career.”
Hundreds of open jobs
The initiative is crucial for the future of this city of 14,000 and its employers, says Mary Hodson, president of the Hutchinson Area Chamber of Commerce. City streets are lined with “we’re hiring” banners, and some manufacturers have increased their part-time workforce in order to lure back retirees and stay-athome parents. While numbers aren’t firm, Hodson estimates that local employers have 300 to 400 jobs they’d like to fill.
“Everybody’s trying to hire and there’s nobody to hire,” she says. “How do we attract and retain people? There’s no magic bullet. But we have to stop thinking the way we have, because it’s not working anymore.”
Sheila Murphy, human resources and safety director of MITGI, a Hutchinson precision micro-tool manufacturer, says she is excited about an effort that will show students there’s an “opportunity to go straight from high school to work or to go for a two-year technical degree and be successful.”
MITGI donated money to buy new technical equipment for the high school, and Murphy visits the school to talk with students.
She meets with freshmen in job skills classes, and her firm offers student tours. She says she is careful when talking about higher education, but urges teenagers to consider their interests and aptitudes. She advises them not to automatically opt for a four-year college just because their friends are aiming for a bachelor’s degree.
“We have competitive wages,” Murphy says. “When students come through, they look at the parking lot and see that our employees buy decent vehicles. We tell them these jobs are stable, people buy a first home, and we have benefits that are affordable for families and individuals.”
Plus, she adds, “I try and remind students that maybe you’re not ready for $50,000 or $100,000 in [four-year college] debt if you’re not really interested in what you’re studying.”
High school ‘academies’
More than $1.2 million has been raised to support the TigerPath initiative. Almost $900,000 will go to buy hightech equipment to update classrooms at Hutchinson High School. The school, which enrolls about 900 students, is developing four “academies,” with concentrations in high tech, construction, and agriculture; science and health care; business; and human services.
While students in ninth and 10th grades traditionally take mostly required courses, Hutchinson Schools Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden says those requirements are being bumped into higher grades so younger high school students can begin exploring career interests through electives.
“We want to start high school with a direct connection to the real world, getting them on the front end,” he says. “We believe all kids need some post-secondary education,” and for some, the best route is a one- or two-year technical program.
VanderHeiden says exploring different fields early in high school will allow students to switch paths if they want. If students find something they like, they will get more advanced classes in upper grades and internships in their senior year.
Local college partner High school teachers worked with their counterparts at Ridgewater College to teach the college curriculum at the high school in some subjects, allowing teenagers to earn college credit. “The college views it as a partnership and a way to get kids into their programs as well,” VanderHeiden says. “They’ve been very supportive. Everyone understands how important workforce development is in the community.”
Such a program would make it possible for students to graduate from high school with nearly half of the work toward a two-year degree completed. In other cases, students may earn enough credits to become certified in a field, enabling them to get jobs in that craft.
The high school’s technical equipment will go from having what Seppelt calls “dinosaurs” in the classroom, to high-tech tool-and-die, design, metal fabrication, small engines, cabinetry, and building trades equipment. There will also be an area dedicated to “mechatronics”— a combination of electronics and mechanical engineering.
Those programs will have business sides, too, with the launch of Tiger Manufacturing. The student-run company will do custom welding and woodwork and have a screen printing division that could produce T-shirts and other apparel for school groups. VanderHeiden says students who are interested in business could help manage and run the company.
Overcoming beliefs about college
Hodson thinks TigerPath has lots of promise. With the wholehearted support of industry, the city, and schools, she says the biggest challenge may be combating the belief that in an increasingly competitive world, the only path to success is through a four-year degree.
“I think this is going to work, but the biggest thing is to get parents to understand,” she says. “A lot of parents want to say, ‘My Jimmy’s going to be a doctor, or he’s going to this school.’ There is so much pressure to go to a four-year college.
“All we’re saying is … not everyone is cut out for that route,” Hodson adds. “Just because you don’t learn best from books or don’t test well doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to make a good living and support a family. Everyone has different talents.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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