Franken interested in filling ‘skills gap,’ visits STEP

With a concern about Minnesota’s “skills gap,” Sen. Al Franken recently visited Anoka-Hennepin’s Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) to talk with students and staff about how the Anoka-Hennepin School District is preparing the workers of the future.

STEP is a high school in a college setting where students explore hands-on careers, fulfill district academic requirements and have the opportunity to earn high school and college credit.

Asia Williams (left) and Hannah Langr (right) visit with Sen. Al Franken about their work in their Project Lead the Way class at STEP. Photo courtesy of the Anoka-Hennepin School District
Asia Williams (left) and Hannah Langr (right) visit with Sen. Al Franken about their work in their Project Lead the Way class at STEP. Photo courtesy of the Anoka-Hennepin School District

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Minnesota businesses’ need for skilled and credentialed workers is greater than all but one other state and the District of Columbia. Franken is hearing about this from the front lines.

“I was just in Jackson,” Franken said. “I was talking with the owner of a manufacturing business. The business is doing well and the owner could hire 100 more employees, but he cannot find people with the skills he needs.”

STEP offers classes in seven of the top nine “best bet jobs in 2012.” During his visit, led by STEP Director Jessica Lipa, Franken met with staff in students in Project Lead the Way (PLTW), machine technology and welding classes. Joining the tour were Dennis Carlson, District 11 superintendent; Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent of high schools; Dr. Jessica Stumpf, Anoka Technical College (ATC) president; and Catherine Gatewood, ATC vice president for student and academic affairs.

PLTW provides students a chance to explore engineering careers while they are still in high school. Found nationwide, PLTW engages students in activities-, projects-, and problem-based (APPB) learning, which provides hands-on classroom experiences. Students create, design, build, discover, collaborate and solve problems while applying what they learn in math and science.

Through the class, Patrick Goebener told Franken that students can earn credits from the University of Minnesota and Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Because it is recognized nationwide, the credits can transfer to other colleges and universities.

“With college affordability being an issue for many students, it’s great they can earn credits here,” Franken said. “It’s also great students are coming out of high school with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills.”

Instructor Michael Hilber spoke to Franken about the machine technology classes he teaches. Students learn industry-based skills including blueprint reading, basic computer numerical control (CNC) programming, machining skills and math that correlate to manufacturing.

“Sen. Franken commented that manufacturing is coming back strong in the U.S. and said he is impressed that students are using classes at STEP to get industry based skills and using our partnership with the college to do this,” Hilber said.

Franken also spoke with students Jonathan Byman and Scott Taylor.

A student at the Center for Engineering, Mathematics and Science (CEMS) at Blaine High School, Byman told the senator he is taking machine technology to get college credits and skills because he would like to major in manufacturing engineering in college.

Byman said the correlation between the engineering theory and hands on projects at STEP will help for continuing his education and career.

Taylor is also taking classes at STEP to earn college credits and skills and hopes to go into either engineering and/or manufacturing. Taylor said that without ATC’s collaboration, he would not have industry-based equipment and to do the machining he is doing.

During the visit to the welding class, instructor Robert Sand described the class and what is expected of the students in terms of high expectations and outcomes. Sand told Franken that his welding students have the ability to earn college credits as well as welding certifications.

“We had a brief conversation about the student’s employability after high school,” Sand said. “I commented that we encourage the students to attend post-secondary training. Since we are housed at ATC, many of the students simply continue here after completing high school because it is an easy transition for them.”

Overall, Franken said his visit to STEP was “fabulous.”

Students were engaged in learning, they are learning important skills (of the 20 largest growing jobs in the state, 18 need STEM skills) and they are earning college credits, which goes a long way in helping to afford a college education, he said.

He was also impressed STEP staff regularly communicate with business and industry leaders to ensure students are prepared for work that is needed, Franken said.

“This is a brilliant system,” he said.

Lipa appreciated Franken’s visit and the opportunity to highlight the importance of career and technical education.

“It is essential that we provide rigorous and relevant educational experiences for students that lead them to various pathways through high school and postsecondary education,” Lipa said. “Providing students with 21st century skills is necessary to keep America on the leading edge of innovation and global competitiveness.”

STEP classes are open to all juniors and seniors in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Students can attend STEP either full- or part-time. Students interested in more information about STEP can contact their school counselor or STEP at 763-433-4000 to schedule a tour.