Bluff Country Collaborative takes next steps to connect students to careers

Jordan Gerard

What started as an effort to connect students to potential careers has blossomed into a collaboration of schools and businesses. Now, Bluff Country Collaborative looks to take the next steps.

A group of schools, businesses and stakeholders met Tuesday, Aug. 20, at MiEnergy Cooperative in Rushford to discuss how to move forward and implement ideas.

The next steps are funding and hiring a coordinator to essentially oversee processes that would set up events from business professionals presenting to classes to setting up internships or apprenticeships for students at a business. 

“We want to connect businesses with schools to provide them with experiential learning for their students,” Courtney Bergey, Community and Economic Development Associate (CEDA), said. “We can coordinate everything from a business person giving a presentation to facility tours, internships and apprenticeships. We want to work with schools and businesses to develop those types of relationships.”

Bluff Country Collaborative developed out of a need to get students in Houston County the ability to work in their own counties. It eventually spilled over into Fillmore County and a little bit of Winona County.

Workforce of SE MN

Marty Walsh, also an employee of CEDA, said the average commute time of residents in Houston and Fillmore counties is 27 minutes, which will just about get them to another town in the same county for work.

Although there are a few commuters who do travel to bigger cities like La Crosse, Wis., and Rochester, most residents only go about 10 miles to work. Nearly 17,000 people travel outside of the two counties to work, but nearly 11,000 people come into the counties to work.

Walsh said that shows there are still good jobs in small towns, and it also implies that employment has mostly recovered from the recessions of 2008 and 2010.

However, entrepreneurship has slowed in Minnesota and the nation. Walsh said, “We need more jobs and employees everywhere.”

Help for all

In order to keep the future workforce in the three counties, it’s important that students know what opportunities exist in the region and what new opportunities become available.

“It’s really a three-prong approach,” Walsh said. “Getting kids to recognize they can be here for a long time, have a well-prepared work force and still be the best person they can be as a result of our school districts.”

Another way the collaborative seeks to do that is by creating a business and school directory with the appropriate contacts for each business or school, which they’ve already done in print.

Now there’s an online portal available that will provide an easy way for businesses and educators to log in and connect experiential learning options together, introduced by Lori Wright, a regional Workforce Development liaison.

The website is, and currently managed by Southeast Service Cooperative. 

Under the guidance of a school counselor, students will be able to log in to the website and see what job opportunities might work for them. Businesses will be able to create company profiles, enabling students to learn more about them.

The Future Forward portal is still in the early stages of development, but will be a fully featured website soon. It does cost businesses and schools to use the site.

Moving forward

Bluff Country Collaborative’s next steps include hiring a coordinator who would be able to manage matching students to businesses, coordinating internships, handling insurance liabilities and overseeing the success of the program.

To hire this person, the collaborative needs nearly $70,000 in funding to make it a paid position. There are options such as community foundations (like Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation or similar), funds that award grants or similar, chambers of commerce, individual businesses and legislative funding.

Southeast Service Cooperative is fairly confident it could receive nearly $2 million from the state Legislature for two years that would help jump-start the position. 

However, the collaborative will attempt to keep funding sources local. The collaborative believes if businesses make the investment into the program, it will pay dividends down the road in terms of a workforce and benefit the entire region.

“What’s good for one town is good for another,” Walsh added. “If you have someone living in Mabel but they work in Rushford, that’s a win for both towns.”

Though the dividends are hard to define right now, he added, if they found the right pioneers willing to invest the time and funds – because they perceived a value to it – more businesses will come into the program because of the results.

Other pieces of putting the puzzle together include reaching out to parents to expose them and their students to different career paths. The collaborative is not railing against four-year universities, but instead wants to show that not every student needs to attend a long program. 

“Kids say they want to go to a four-year school because everyone does it,” Rushford-Peterson Middle/High School Principal Jake Timm said. “But they don’t know what they want to do, go into debt and then take a different route. We need kids to identify their needs and get them on the right track.”

The group agreed kids should be asked what they want from their careers, not just jobs. 

Steps to take now

If this collaborative effort sounds like a good idea to you and your business, you can get involved too and have a say in southeast Minnesota’s future workforce.

Talk to Bergey about becoming a business host site and start working with local schools. Contact her at or 507-251-9272.

Add your business to the Future Forward portal and the printed directory. Contact Sarah Ness at or 507-281-6678.

Talk to the collaborative directly if you’d like to help out with financial support. Contact Workforce Development Business Liaison Dee Slinde at or 507-951-7092.