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Franken to Chamber: Education a key to helping economy

Education is a key tool for rebuilding the U.S. economy, and Americans can't let ideological differences hamper efforts to build an educated workforce.

That was at the heart of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's message to a crowd of local business leaders and educators at a luncheon sponsored by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.

"We have a lot of work to do" the Democrat told the crowd. "If Martians came to Earth and watched a day of cable TV news to learn about the U.S., they'd conclude … well, that we're all screwed. But you and I know better."

He pointed out that the U.S. national debt is about equal to the gross domestic product (GDP), and he said it's "scary."

"But after World War II, the debt was 121 percent of the GDP. …We bounced back from that, and we can do it again," said Franken. "There's no trampoline quite like education."


America bloomed after World War II, and two out of every five adults between the ages of 25 and 44 had a college degree in 1976. The U.S., followed closely by Canada, led the world in that area. No other country was even close.

Fast forward to 2011, and about 41 percent of that same group has a college degree, a number almost unchanged 36 years later. But the rest of the world has not stood still. Where the U.S. was the leader, it is now ranked 16th behind countries including Canada, Japan and Norway.

Getting people better educated is more than just a nice goal, Franken said. It is a necessity to give employers the skilled workforce they needed to bring the U.S. economy back to stability.

That falls in line with the Rochester Area Chamber's push for better education and training, particularly in the areas of math and science, to make sure that the 10,000 jobs projected to be created in the city in the next 10 years will be filled by skilled workers.

Before his speech, the senator met with local students who compete in Lego robotics competitions. They are an example of what the U.S. needs to "grow its way" out of the economic hole it has sunken into, he said.

Franken told the audience that the Department of Employment and Economic Development says almost half of Minnesota's manufacturers currently have jobs they would like to fill, but they can't because of a lack of employees with the necessary skills.

"If we can turn our kids onto these subjects of math, science and technology, we can start building that manufacturing workforce," Franken said.

However, the current vitriolic political environment and difficult financial landscape are not helping elected leaders make headway on the issues, Franken said.


The senator went on to say that things won't get better until political factions start to work together.

"We have the same civic values," Franken said. "We have the same playbook. … We're on the same team. We can't stand on ideologies. We're going to have to give some on both sides. We can close the skills gap, but only if we work together."

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