High school students in Houston County can expect to see more opportunities to get involved with local businesses and gain experience for their future, be it post secondary or workforce.

The Houston County Economic Development Authority (EDA) partnered with schools and businesses at a summit on Tuesday, Feb. 28 to bridge the gap between students and businesses.

Many business owners expressed interest in connecting students to multiple opportunities such as internships, job shadowing and more that would also be beneficial to their company.

Brian Cashman, Perkins Consortium leader for Southeast Minnesota, said they want to build programs for future students.

“We want to paint a picture that educationally, there’s a lot of different options,” he said. “It’s really wide open, theoretically, of what can happen between schools and businesses.”

He added that all four schools in Houston County were already doing good things to let their students know what opportunities are available, such as the World’s Best Workforce committees in each school district.

That committee determines goals for educators to prepare students for college or the workforce after they graduate.

Employers discussed ways for them to be more engaged, such as job shadowing, internships and mentorships. The EDA and Workforce Development are willing to make connections and compile a list of businesses willing to work with students, CEDA Community and Business Development Specialist Courtney Bergey said.

“We do have resources to bounce ideas off of and we can help with human resources,” she said.

Workforce Regional Youth Programs Coordinator Jinny Rietmann presented an experiential learning model to the group. The pyramid chart explained that classroom presentations (on the bottom) got less “touch points” with more students.

Going up the pyramid to more specified job experiences, like tours, mentoring, job shadowing and internships increases the touch points, but decreases the number of students who might be interested.

The idea of the model is to find students who have an interest in a certain industry and let them know more about it by getting more in-depth.

“It allows students to try out jobs,” Ritman said. “It also helps with career preparation because it provides training and experience in a field they are interested in. It’s a stepping stone.”

Businesses expressed interest in this idea; however, legal ramifications have a potential for keeping businesses away from letting students into their workforce.

Shooting Star Native Seeds employee Jessi Strinmoen said she wants to be supportive of students and have them involved, but sometimes her company works with heavy equipment that would be dangerous for students to operate or be around.

There’s also a matter of getting work done throughout the day while students are present, as many places would not want to fall behind on their work.

A suggestion was made to have liaisons between the students and the workplace. The liaison would find work for the student or educate them when employees are busy.

It would also help with accountability for students if they don’t show up on time or how to evaluate what the students learned while working at a business.

Another idea was to take traditional job fairs one step further and have the students choose the top three jobs they would apply for.

The second step is to have that student actually fill out an application for those jobs and attend interviews. This would allow for students to build relationships with potential employers.

Other ideas included creating an accessible database of Houston County jobs.

School officials at the meetings agreed there are kids in school who would love to have those resources. The experiences could also be put on resumes and applications.

More discussion centered around bringing back home economic classes so students can learn to do dishes, laundry, cleaning, cooking and more.

“Our kids don’t have basic life skills,” an attendee said. “Some have never done dishes in their life, let alone at a restaurant. They need to know how to run their own home.”

It was also discussed that the recent trend of encouraging every student to attend a university to obtain a four-year degree should be done away with. By connecting students with businesses, they can gain an insight to the industry they’re interested in.

That would help them decide if they need to obtain a degree, certificate or simply just start working and move up the ladder.

EDA analysis

The summit also hosted Regional Labor Market Analyst Mark Schultz of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, who showed statistics about the economic environment in Houston County and southeast Minnesota.

Projects for population from 2020 to 2040 said there would be about 2,435 less people in the region, which would lead to a net loss of $245,000.

Labor force overall is projected to drop by 6,220 people, a -2.3 percent loss in total labor force. The biggest loss in labor would be about 12,584 less people aged 55 to 64 years.

For every 10 job openings there’s only 11 people looking for work. Those people who apply must also have the education, training and desire to work in that job.

The labor force trend continues to decline and worsen through 2030 as an aging population continues to leave, Schultz said.

“You may have to increase wages, restructure practices and offer more perks,” he said. “For youth that will be taking these jobs, that’s good news.”

Things like flexible hours, ability to work from home and ability to move up the ladder into management positions would attract young persons looking for work.

Schultz did offer good news for the region. Southeast Minnesota is the second highest paying region in the state, with median wages at $18.53 and 259,060 people employed.

He added there are at least 20 occupations in demand, and some of the training for those jobs could be given to interested students before they graduate high school.

That strategy would help determine what they want for a future career and if they need a degree or certificate.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to gain work experience and valuable skills while in high school working part time hours, like 10 to 20 hours a week,” Schultz said. “Maybe they want to be a chef, so they work at McDonald’s because they want to work with food.”

He added it’s important to tell students that their first job will most likely not be the one they retire from.

“Never underestimate a job as a starting point,” he said. “People can go from an assembler, to a team lead, to a department manager and beyond.”

The group agreed the next steps were to connect employers with educators and to create meetings between the two.

A meeting will be held on April 11 for an advisory committee to continue work on connecting businesses and students. To learn more about the committee, contact Bergey at courtney.bergey@cedausa.com.

The committee will also be following up with interested individuals to determine what works best for them.