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Learn It Your Way

Businesses enlist the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to offer custom training to meet pivotal workforce needs.

Learn It Your Way

Founded in 1997 as a contract manufacturer, Best Source Electronics Corp. has had a steady workforce of employees with years of knowledge and experience. But many workers started retiring or moving on to other jobs as the economy improved. The Blaine-based company needed to train a new cohort of employees so that it could continue serving its medical device, military and agricultural customers.

In pursuit of skilled training, Best Source developed a relationship with Hennepin Technical College to provide custom courses for employees in soldering and IPC 620 standards for cable assembly and wire harness manufacturing. Not only would the training allow the company to meet the high electrical standards required by its customers, it also would help employees advance their skills. These new capabilities might open opportunities for them to move into positions of greater responsibility and earn more money—thus encouraging them to stay on board, says company CEO Brad Storch.

“Hennepin Tech has been doing a really good job of taking an interest in what the workforce needs and seeing what skills are missing,” Storch says. “In the United States, we’re struggling with manufacturing jobs” that companies want to bring back to the country. “But it’s difficult to find the workers to do them. You can’t scale rapidly if you have to grow that talent organically,” he explains.

Building a robust core of employees through Hennepin Tech will help the company pursue additional business, he says. Training seven employees in the soldering class in August and 12 in the IPC class, completed in November, helps workers do their jobs more independently and faster, he adds. Storch emphasizes that it also demonstrates that Best Source wants to invest in employee growth.

“One of our core values is focused on developing people,” Storch says. “We’re looking for people who have a desire to learn, and by making courses available with Hennepin Tech it helps reinforce our objectives. Employees appreciate the fact that the company is willing to invest money in them and their skills. It’s been really positive.”

Custom training benefits

Developing training programs that suit the specific needs of employers and their teams is something Hennepin Tech and 30 other schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system do constantly. Many companies view MnSCU’s custom training as a powerful tool. They use it to broaden their pool of available workers, keep up with rapidly changing industries like health care and information technology, and ensure that existing employees can meet their needs for technical skills, language abilities or leadership training.

Though custom workforce training largely went dormant during the recession, MnSCU has definitely noticed a rising interest in custom training, says Mary Rothchild, senior system director of workforce development. High-demand sectors include health care, public entities, manufacturing and information technology.

MnSCU builds on its existing vocational and technical training programs while working closely with businesses to develop the exact training employees need—often at their workplaces. “We’re a very good partner in many respects,” Rothchild says. “Our colleges are widely distributed in the state, meaning you can find a local institution that is part of the community. It makes the logistics of getting a training rep to a company much easier. We do get some public subsidy, so we’re the lowest-cost but often the highest-quality training available, especially in the technical services area.”

MnSCU leaders maintain that companies can gain in other ways by hiring MnSCU. When businesses request training, customized training representatives do on-site client assessments to learn about their evolving workforce needs, whether it’s specific technical skills, leadership training or lean management. “We come out and assess them and find out what the pain is. Then we come up with a training solution to help mitigate that pain,” says Cherie Rollings, associate dean for customized training services at Hennepin Technical College and North Hennepin Community College.

Gathering this information and building custom training programs also can benefit the macro business community, as MnSCU schools learn in-depth about the skills companies are seeking in their new hires. Then colleges can adjust their curricula to meet those needs through their certificate and degree programs, giving businesses access to a bigger pool of already-trained workers who have the skills they require, says Rothchild.

Most often, instructors conduct training right at a company’s facility, allowing employees to learn on equipment they already know and making efficient use of their time. At Hennepin Tech, about 80 percent of its custom training happens at the client company’s location, Rollings says. Previously at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) about 75 percent of businesses wanted training on-site. Lately, though, it has shifted back to about 50 to 60 percent of companies requesting that courses be held on campus, says Abbey Hellickson, director of business and workforce education.

MnSCU Custom Training Demand
During fiscal 2014, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system served 2,082 businesses that sought custom training programs. Slightly more than 1,000 of the 3,167 custom-training contracts were with employers with more than 100 people.

Number of Training Contracts with MnSCU by Industry Type
Manufacturing and the justice, public order and safety sectors are among the top customers for customized training from the MnSCU system. Health care employers also frequently contract with MnSCU for courses that are targeted to specific workplace needs.

“They’re trying to make it more of an event. They like to have the training off-site so that employees can disconnect from work,” Hellickson adds. “If they are on-site, they can get pulled away for meetings or for questions, and they aren’t fully engaged in the training.”

Tightening labor market

MnSCU schools have noticed an uptick in interest in custom training in the past year, as the economy recovered and the job market started tightening. Recently, many businesses have been focusing on custom training in leadership development, says Noel Lutsey, director of professional and workforce training at Anoka-Ramsey Community College/Anoka Technical College. “We keep hearing about a skills gap, but the major concern that some have is the softer skills they want people to have, like how to compose an email, or conflict management,” he adds.

RCTC has conducted Leadership 101-style training for employers seeking to prepare novice leaders for new opportunities. They often cover topics such as communication, mentoring, leadership styles and emotional intelligence, in hopes that these new skills will help existing employees advance—and stick around. The college also creates custom programs for companies that want to further prepare their current leaders for the next level of management.

“Companies are starting to realize that they didn’t put a lot of effort in those areas while the economy was unstable, and now they are recognizing that people have other opportunities now,” says Hellickson. “It’s working on the concept that leaders are critical to retention, and with the economy, job opportunities in the Rochester area are abundant.”

Shifts in health care regulations and practices such as electronic medical records also have prompted a growing interest in custom training. Rochester Community and Technical College recently developed a new curriculum at the request of Mayo Clinic for its administrative clinical assistants. Though Mayo ran an in-house training program for years, it no longer was financially sustainable because of new HIPAA and Affordable Care Act regulations, says Jo Ellen Hamilton, resource training and development liaison at Mayo.

Mayo collaborated with RCTC to develop a new diploma program to train people in the mix of computer skills, customer service, critical thinking and basic medical knowledge needed for its clinical assistants and patient appointment coordinators. Mayo has a strong demand for these skilled front-line employees who can assess patients’ concerns over the phone, schedule them for an appointment with the correct clinic, and get them ready to see their provider by taking their measurements and vital signs.

Though the program now is open to any student, the college ran a pilot program at Mayo for 15 existing employees. Every three months during the program, the students and Mayo would evaluate the training to provide RCTC with feedback and help shape the curriculum to ensure that it meets Mayo’s needs, Hamilton says.

The training program has worked well for Mayo. It builds on other successful custom training experiences with the college, which is a frequent partner for developing its workforce, Hamilton says. RCTC has helped Mayo build an in-house medical terminology program and its outpatient operations support training course.

“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with them. They give us ideas on how to become a better employer, looking at the future and seeing what’s coming down the road,” says Hamilton. “With health care changing, we need to have the highest quality of care, but it needs to be affordable, so we need people to work to the highest scope for their licensure. It’s important that employees have more education to do the things we might be asking of them in the future.”

High-tech training

Another rapidly changing field, information technology, is a high-demand area for MnSCU custom training. That might mean helping employers boost non-technical employees’ proficiency in programs such as Excel or the Adobe software suite, or providing staff with additional technology training to prepare them for future roles. Anoka-Ramsey Community College/Anoka Technical College offers custom computer training for a wide variety of employers, from dentists’ offices to county government to manufacturers.

Hennepin Technical College often helps companies guide employees through software updates. Recently its instructors developed a custom training program for Polaris as it upgraded its computer-assisted design and manufacturing software, which is used for creating parts for snowmobiles and four-wheelers. Making its employees more efficient on the new software will speed up manufacturing while saving the company about $1 million a year, Rollings says.

Many employers call on Anoka to tailor coursework to fit their specific needs, using case studies or terminology that matches their operations instead of sending students to the college for more generic training. The custom courses also allow businesses to offer instruction in the format that works best for their employees, and with an instructor who meshes well with their staff, Lutsey says.

Anoka has created webinars that allow employees to complete coursework on their own time. One custom course in low-voltage electronics prepares non-electricians to install new security systems or mobile tech-support staff to work on customers’ home computers. “That way they can have people from all over the country finish their training instead of having to come here,” says Lutsey.

Communications provider CenturyLink has worked with Anoka Technical College for about 15 years to provide its employees with custom CISCO and Microsoft certification training. About 100 employees a year participate in the six-week certification programs, held at one of CenturyLink’s offices and paid for by the company. It helps them hone their skills in a highly technical area or to move into a new area of the company, say, from residential to business services, says Joanna Hjelmeland, CenturyLink spokeswoman.

The training is part of the company’s Pathways professional development program, which offers sessions to employees in topics such as résumé writing or Spanish. Some courses are conducted during the day, while the IT certification courses generally are offered in off-hours. The custom training is a great use of CenturyLink’s resources because it benefits both the individual and the company, Hjelmeland says.

“So much of our workforce is in a technical role, and if we can help people become better at their job through special certifications, we’re really preparing them for advancement in our company. That only helps us,” she says. “Everyone wants to feel appreciated and supported by our employers, and this is one way we can provide opportunities for employees to advance and grow their skills.”

Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and a longtime TCB contributor.

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