Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series of stories focused on the issue of workforce shortages facing rural Minnesota and the efforts that are being made to address them as it relates to students who will be taking over those jobs in the not-so-distant future.

If today’s students were assured of a good-paying job in the region where they have been growing up, 75 percent of them indicated they would want to live and work there. That statistic was offered by Luke Greiner, a regional analyst for southwestern and central Minnesota for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), during a presentation at Daktronics in Redwood Falls.

Greiner spoke to the staff of the Redwood Area School District in late November as part of a staff development day coordinated by the school in conjunction with Daktronics in an effort to provide perspective for the people who are having an impact on the next generation of workers. 

“This is a great opportunity for us to make connections with the business community,” said Rick Ellingworth, Redwood Area School District superintendent. “Next to parents, teachers are primary influencers in the lives of kids.”

The bottom line, said Ellingworth, is schools need business to be successful in the community where those schools exist just as much as the businesses need the schools.

According to Tom Quackenbush, Daktronics plant manager, in the next decade 70 people currently working at Daktronics will retire, and with 169 people currently employed at the manufacturing facility, that represents a challenge.

“That is a lot of people to have to replace,” said Quackenbush, adding Daktronics is a microcosm of the bigger issue in Redwood Falls and the surrounding area.

The fact is there is going to be a significant exodus of people from the workforce in the next 10 years, and no one knows right now where those people are going to come from to fill those jobs. That, said Quackenbush, is why it is so critical to talk about this issue now and to get the business community working in conjunction with educators to provide opportunities for the next generation of workers to see that those good-paying jobs do exist in right their hometown.

According to Greiner, it is important for those who are impacting students to offer them a practical message – not everyone has to go to college to get a good job. Yes, he said, communities need doctors, nurses, accountants, etc., and for those jobs a college degree is necessary. However, he added higher education is not as critical for people who may want to work in other careers, such as driving truck or working in sales.

“Decisions about higher education should be focused on the end goal,” said Greiner.

While helping students find that career path is critical, it is also as important for those students to be prepared for the working world. That means learning the soft skills, such as working well with others, showing up on time and communicating, and those can be taught in schools starting as early as Kindergarten.

Then, throughout their time in school, those skills can be reinforced as a way to make students more employable and more capable of seeing success after they graduate.

“Your influence is huge,” Quackenbush told the staff.

Quackenbush added the concepts being taught through the Cardinal Way in schools are providing those soft skills and traits, such as being honest, helpful and humble, that can make the difference in the life of a student as they begin their careers.

Quackenbush also stressed the importance of getting the message across to students that every decision they make and every relationship they have can make an impact on their life.

Greiner said those soft skills are especially important for students who do not plan to pursue higher education, adding the most recent data showed in this region up to 23 percent of students directly enter the workforce. In Redwood Falls that number is closer to 16 percent.

Greiner added communities are often becoming their own worst enemy as they push students to get a four-year degree even though in this region just 14 percent of the job openings require a bachelors degree or higher.

Greiner also said part of that preparation for the working world can happen in the community during high school through local jobs. No, said Greiner, he is not saying getting a college degree is a bad idea. Rather, he is saying it depends upon the students and what they really want to do in terms of their career.

“It’s just that not all jobs in this area require a college degree,” he said. “That is the dynamic of the community.”

Greiner said just ensuring students have the best information possible is critical, adding that happens in schools and becomes more effective when those who are teaching that information have heard from local businesses.

Good jobs are available in the Redwood area, helping students understand that is going to take everyone in the community working together to offer them that message.