RUSHFORD — Employers in rural Southeast Minnesota need workers. Area graduates need jobs. It's the kind of partnership that makes the economic world go round.
There's only one problem.
In many small rural schools, unlike larger urban districts such as Rochester or Winona, the resources don't exist to connect students and area employers. Many students, as a result, aren't aware of the career opportunities in their own backyard at a time when rural employers are desperate for workers.
"When you're Mabel High School and you're graduating 11 kids a year, it's not so easy (making those connections)," said Marty Walsh, a specialist with Community and Economic Development Asscociates, an economic development agency.
Now a new nonprofit called the Bluff Country Collaborative is seeking to forge a bridge between the two.
Made up of eight local schools and more than 50 businesses in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties, the group is seeking to build a pipeline between schools and employers, the better to facilitate the kinds of work-based experiences that might spark a student's interest in a particular career.
Those experiences might include job-shadowing opportunities, apprenticeships, mentorships and work-based learning.
A 'huge leap'
On Tuesday, after more than a year of talks, the collaborative hosted its first summit bringing together about 30 area educators and business representative in the City of Rushford Village.
Walsh called the meeting a "huge leap" for the organization. The goal is that within the next six months, a permanent staff person can be hired. Currently the collaborative exists because of volunteer efforts.
"Just the need for workers," said Courtney Bergey Swanson, CEDA's director of community engagement, when asked about the summit's timing. "We've been hearing about this for a long time. We just don't have enough bodies to fill the jobs."
The schools include La Crescent-Hokah, Lewiston-Altura, Caledonia, Fillmore Central, Rushford-Peterson, Houston, Mabel-Canton and Spring Grove.
Jake Timm, Rushford-Peterson's middle and high school principal, said the goal of the collaborative is to help students identify their interests earlier and expose them to work opportunities that align with those interests.
Most kids from small rural schools, when asked about their career goals, assume they are going to a four-year school but have little idea of what they want to do. Then they get to college and realize college life is not for them. They return home but now are in debt.
The collaborative could help students find a cleaner route to employment. Smaller towns may not offer every job that large cities do, but more often than not they have vet clinics, nursing homes and manufacturing plants that are looking for workers.
"Maybe it's a tech school. Maybe it's an apprenticeship. Maybe it's an internship," Timm said. "All these different areas that they could potentially go into and make a good career and good-paying job."
Many smaller, rural schools simply don't have the resources to develop the work-based programs students need. A guidance counselor at a small school also often serves as a teacher and does other things as well. But by building a network and pooling resources, schools could better serve students.
One participant emphasized the importance of finding "pioneers" in the business community willing to build such a network.
Today, employers are so strapped for workers that they have little time to focus on anything but day-to-day matters. But once they recognize the potential dividends of such a network both to themselves and the region, more businesses will be willing to enlist, he predicted.
Educators said the collaborative's focus is also in line with changing curriculum at the schools, which is more focused on work-based learning.
Houston High School Prinicipal Todd Lundberg also stressed how important it was for area businesses to be part of the equation, because without them, educators are simply not aware of the opportunities for students.
Lundberg said he was excited about the collaborative's potential. Currently, Houston devotes one school day to job-shadowing. Now he is considering four or five days for students to job shadow employers before they graduate.
Hopefully, they will not only find employment but find it in the area.
"I'm looking forward to getting the kids out there," he said