“We are all about outstanding employees,” said Sue Mieska, Business Manager for Cardinal Glass in Northfield, MN. “We have always been that way. The company has been around fifty-two years, and they’re always looking for the best talent.”

Mieska knows what she’s talking about. She’s been with Cardinal Glass for thirty of its fifty-two years. “When I first started here I worked on the floor. I’ve done probably every job in the building except plant manager.” Her growth within the company isn’t unusual. “The president of the company started as a forklift driver,” she said.

With loyal employees and room to grow, Mieska said, “We have a good reputation. This has always been a desirable place to work.” Still, Cardinal Glass is feeling the pinch of the increasingly tight labor market. That is especially true in high-demand jobs like mechatronics. This new field combines the electronics and mechanical engineering knowledge needed to maintain and repair complex manufacturing equipment. “Right now if you typed in ‘maintenance technician,’ you’d probably find seventeen hundred openings in the tri-state area,” Mieska said.

Innovation Is Key

Clearly, innovation is key to finding the best and brightest. “We partnered up with South Central College probably a year and a half ago,” Mieska said. “We connected with Kelcey Woods-Nord. She got us interested in helping pay tuition with a dual training grant.”

The Minnesota PIPELINE Project, established through the Minnesota Legislature in 2014, lets employers pay apprentices’ tuition and fees in approved institutions that offer competency-based training. Meanwhile, students learn and earn on the job.

Woods-Nord, South Central’s coordinator for the Minnesota Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Project (MNAMP) said, “We brought the apprenticeship forth as an opportunity for employers and for us. Recruiting for manufacturing is more difficult than it has been. There’s less exposure in high school.” The goal, Woods-Nord said, is to “promote these fields and change the viewpoint on manufacturing, too, so that students realize it’s a viable option. They come out of college with minimal debt and a good paying job.”

The dual training grant provides a win/win/win for employers, apprentices and schools. Still, “We probably wouldn’t have gotten this grant if Kelcey hadn’t helped us,” Mieska said. “She really made it agreeable for us to work with her on it. Now that we’ve done it once, it seems like something we’ll continue.

Woods-Nord agreed. “Employers are excited once they find out what it is. But just give an employer a grant application and they might find it intimidating.”

“We worked with Jessica Franta, the Academic Advisor at South Central College,” Mieska said. “She came here, saw what we had to offer, presented us to the students and then coordinated with us to arrange student tours and interviews. We saw three student files and chose one to offer an interview.”

Since the apprentice was moving from outside the area, his employment at Cardinal Glass started the same week as his classes at South Central College. The student will work twenty-four hours a week during his two-year mechatronics course.

“It’ll be interesting after this semester to get feedback from students,” Woods-Nord said. “A lot of our students are working forty hours and taking seventeen credits. If you can get this agreement with the employer, you can reduce both the work hours and credit load.”

“We have a system where he gets scheduled chances for wage increases. At the end of two years, he’ll be eligible for full-time work at a maintenance technician. We like to hope he thinks of this not as a job but as a career,” Mieska said.

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