OWATONNA — Owatonna High School is partnering with several local businesses and the chamber of commerce to provide local opportunities for students not attending college in a new “school-to-work” program.

Ideally, OHS would like to be able to place every student not planning on heading to college or joining the military in a local position as soon as they graduate, or even before. These jobs offer “a livable wage,” as “there’s a difference between that and something temporary,” said Mark Randall, principal of Owatonna High School.

Well-paying local jobs at places like Wenger Corporation, Viracon, Cybex, Bosch and Daikin are “absolutely” available, he said.

“It all needs to connect and fit in with the vision of where we’re going as a school and a district, but I’m excited about what’s out there,” said Randall.

“Business is strong, and companies need more people to keep growing,” said Brad Meier, president/CEO of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

A shortage of workers in everything from material handling to machine operations is common right now, said Meier, “especially in out-state Minnesota,” but Owatonna is unique in having such an eclectic mix of businesses.

“We don’t have one manufacturer who employs the whole town,” Meier said.

There’s diversity in manufacturers, but also in other sectors, from companies like Federated Insurance and Jostens, to Owatonna Hospital and Mayo Clinic.

“That’s good for our community,” Meier said.

Roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of OHS seniors do not go on to college.

“We don’t really know what’s happening with them, [other than] they’re not going to college,” Randall said. “We want to make those students feel wanted.”

Kelly Anderson, human resources manager for Cybex said it was “stunning” to have as many as 25 percent of OHS graduates without concrete post-high school plans.

“We want them to feel they have a place,” said Anderson. “Our main focus is the students, helping those kids who don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Others agreed.

“We want those students to feel they are being recruited,” Meier added. “We need them here in the labor pool.”

“We are optimistic when they understand organizations want them to be part of their teams. That is a pretty powerful message to young people,” said Jim Wendorff, vice president of Human Resources for Viracon. “We want you to join us, go on a great journey together, and become the next generation of Owatonna people who keep Owatonna manufacturing on top of the game and relevant not just locally but in the global economy.”

Though Thursday was the first time Randall met with a group of students specifically regarding this program, counselors and advisers have been compiling a list for months of students likely not to attend college, Randall said. They’ve also been communicating with those students about their interests and attributes.

“We have colleges come in all the time, as does the military, to recruit students, but we have a population” that “maybe has been left out a little bit,” Randall said. “We are trying to help them understand there is a place for them.

“We’re identifying those students and reaching out to them.”

Businesses have been particularly helpful, not only in enthusiastically cooperating with the program, but also in providing feedback regarding the skills they need in employees, he said.

As for the chamber, its goal is “to move the workforce piece forward and find solutions,” so “this was a natural place to really dig in,” Meier said.

While not every position would fit an employee just out of high school, there are numerous roles open for those workers in Owatonna and southeastern Minnesota, he said.

Cybex has a plethora of entry-level positions, and “we have a program in place” to transition those employees to more substantial roles, Anderson said. In addition to on-the-job training, they also offer tuition reimbursement if employees need further classes to master concepts as long as employees have “a willingness to learn and a drive to succeed.”

Indeed, many companies will pay for employees to attend training and workshops that teach desired skills.

“There’s a path toward a sustainable long-term career at pretty much all of these,” Meier said. “They are eager to retain good employees and move them up.”

Demographics are shifting in Owatonna, and as more baby boomers retire, “the success of our company” will hinge on a “well-trained workforce,” Wendorff said. “The manufacturing environment is becoming more technical, sophisticated and automated.”

When contemplating manufacturing, many still imagine “the plant your grandfather may have worked in,” but instead, places like Viracon are “a more exciting, challenging environment,” he said. In the past, when a machine went down, someone with a tool belt came to fix it, but “now we’re more integrated and computerized, so it takes a different level of employee to troubleshoot that.”

Equipment is state-of-the-art, and plants are cleaner, he said. “The level of complexity has tripled from where it was decades ago.”

No doubt, businesses are “energized” for this initiative, Meier said. “The business community wants to be a good partner with schools and held students find opportunities.”

Schools like OHS, Medford High School and the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center are “really embracing” this initiative, which “bubbled up from the grassroots,” Meier said. “As we are more successful, I look for this to be a key piece of what our schools do.”

Medford only recently joined the program, having participated in the last planning meeting, but the high school hopes it will “help us connect our graduates (who) wish to enter the workforce (with) good-paying local jobs because we want to keep these young people in our communities,” said Chris Ovrebo, principal of Medford High School.

“I hope we are able to participate in the business tours and career fair that were discussed at the last meeting and ultimately give our students a head start by having a job lined up by the time they graduate, rather than just starting the search at that point,” said Ovrebo.

In the modern workforce, employees must understand “how to learn,” Randall said. By relating lessons to future employment, OHS students grasp “why they need to learn” what they’re learning, and “our teachers are awesome” at teaching students “how to learn the concepts.”

OHS students “have that (necessary) base of skills just from their K-12 education,” and employers can train students on the specific needs for particular jobs as long as they already possess “soft skills” like accountability, communication, problem-solving and collaboration, he said. “There’s huge value to the skills they already have and what they can offer.”

Employers are “looking more at the person and their skills and abilities because technical training can be taught,” Meier said. “Do they have an aptitude for it? Do they like it?”

Viracon will invest in employees who are “mechanically-inclined and have a curiosity about how things work,” Wendorff said. They also need to communicate with aplomb, take direction and work well with others because “we have lots of team environments.”

As college student debt continues to explode, “hitting the ground running right after high school and earning a paycheck is not a bad deal,” Wendorff said. Viracon and other businesses will partner with schools like Riverland Community College and South Central College for additional teaching incoming employees might need, because “it’s incumbent upon us to do that specified job training.”

“Young people coming out of school today are fortunate because there’s a need to add to many workforces,” Wendorff added. “We want to get out in front of young people to show them they have this option, not only in Owatonna, but in other communities, too.”

It’s not only a paycheck, either, as many of these positions offer crucial benefits, Anderson said. “There are lots of career opportunities in Owatonna.”

Randall’s long-term goal is to open up even more “career pathways” than just the manufacturing sector, he said. This could involve anything from healthcare to sales.

“We already do a lot of that with our” mentoring and business internship programs, but with school to work, “we’re being more intentional about it,” he said. Some of the other career-focused programs the high school has been providing for years are more “exploratory” than “intentional.”

As school-to-work continues to gain footing, OHS would also send students out to experience various jobs earlier in their education, rather than waiting until senior year, he said. “We want to create more of those opportunities for students starting in ninth grade because they are ready for that by the time they get to high school.”

It’s paramount to show students how their academic skills and interests translate into the workforce, he said. “We teach it well, but we need more opportunities for students to apply them.”

The school-to-work program can trace its genesis back to Made In Owatonna Day, funded by the Bosch Foundation, Meier said. Over three days, roughly 180 students get a chance to learn more about various local career tracks.

In addition, the United Way currently funds a career counselor, Amy Lofquist, at OHS, and Meier and others would like to see that job become full-time and permanent, he said.

“That position is focused on getting students tied in with business opportunities in Owatonna,” said Meier.

Furthermore, the website steelecoworks.com has begun adding various local job listings. This online resource is a way for students — and anyone else looking for local jobs — to examine openings.

While much of the focus for school to work is understandably on students, providing information on these employment opportunities to parents would also be judicious, as they can become part of the process, Anderson said. “Parents have lots of influence.”

Reach reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter.com @randerson_ryan


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