NCTC President Dennis Bona talks about manufacturing program for new Americans

Dennis Bona, president of Northland Community & Technical College, discussed the school's manufacturing certificate program for new Americans. The program is funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of Labor.


(Please note - this transcript was copied from an electronic captioning service. We apologize for any errors, spelling, grammatical, or otherwise.)

Chris Berg: So a while back I talked about a new American manufacturing certificate program at Northland Community and Tech program. There is a grant that came that obviously your and my tax dollars are paying for that. Since then the president of northland community and tech and I have been having an E-mail chain and he was kind enough to join us tonight and talk more about this program, the outcomes and what some of the intentions are. So President Dennis Bona joins us tonight. Thank you for being here. I really appreciate your time.

Dennis Bona: Thanks for having me, Chris.

CB: So I was a little tough on this 'cause I'm saying here we are. We're lowering wages for people. We talked about this off camera. Bunch of kids graduated from college with a lot of debt. They're underemployed. Let's start with this with you, you said hey, Chris, the reason we're doing this kind of program, we've got big work force issues and to quote some of your E-mail, you said local manufacturers have express that had if they cannot meet their work force needs, it will be impossible to grow or even sustain their current operations. Meaning forced to close or move to another community. I want to peak down the stats on this grant and help me out with it. Four-year grant, $600,000. You've been in operation for two years.

DB: Yes.

CB: The course of two years you've had five students become part of it. Four graduate and two get jobs. So when I hear there is a big work force need, but you've only had five students, it doesn't sound like you're fulfilling that need and getting a good return on investment on the 600 grand. How do you defend those results?

DB: Well, got to get like most issues, we got to get you into the right context here. The specific program that you're talking about, the new American training, is a small component of that larger grant. We're doing lots of things with that money in different areas and putting different programs together. This one program is we have a total investment of about $20,000 in with the curriculum development and the alignment and the cost of paying the faculty to teach that program. That's about where we are with that. So it certainly isn't the entire grant. A lot of the grant went to purchase equipment for our manufacturing-related programs. And so that's where some of the money was spent. Sop was spent in curriculum development for some of our highly skilled program. Our electrician, pipe fitters, welders. We've got a big component of welding, whether it's a high demand and high skill area. This is a small portion of the grant. Now, absolutely, five students is not a major impact. Not the impact we were looking for. But this was the first class that we brought in. You're looked at as more of a pilot type program. We're going to run another cohort this fall. We're hoping to increase the enrollment and hopefully by the end of the two careers, we'll have a much bigger impact than five students.

CB: It sounds like it's being driven by a lot of private companies. Why is there so few students in the program? You need to do a better job of marketing it? Is there just not enough new Americans in the community that fulfill it?

DB: Combination of both. We need to do a better job of marketing and our understanding -- some of this becomes a cultural issue. We need to find ways to get to the populations that we can serve and what our experience are telling us, don't put an ad in the newspaper.

CB: So you should advertise on TV

DB: TV might have a bigger impact. So if we could afford that, we would.

CB: I might find someone who can hookup.

DB: We've got to look at other avenues. What we understand is it's going to be word of mouth. It's going to be about relationships and finding ways into that community that make sure that the opportunities are understood because they are significant opportunities. We're taking -- again, the area that we're specifically working on is entry level positions in manufacturing. Some of the larger manufacturers, quite frankly have some relatively harsh conditions that not everybody standing in line to waiting to get in. The truth is that these employers have struggled for a while to bring the entry level workers into the work force. They're just not finding people. So they came to us and said a potential work force is the new American population. Now, let's see if they're wanting to apply for these positions. But they've got a skill gap.

CB: Are they looking at new Americans to lower wages? I'm going to give you some numbers to back up because -- again, the E-mail chain, you said the allegation that the employers are trying to hold down their labor costs, perhaps fair to challenge is simply not supported by the numbers. When I looked at the numbers, this is according to the Minnesota revenue project, wages are actually lower in Minnesota now than they were in the year 2000 and it's even worse for low skilled workers. So are they saying hey, you know what? We're not going to probably be able to lobby the lower corporate tax rates. Hey, I know that I can go and quasi exploit new Americans 'cause they don't have a lot of education or skills and I can get them for a low amount of money.

DB: I would hope that would not be the case. That certainly is a perspective and perhaps practice. I don't have anything to debate that. My understanding is that all of these companies, these larger companies have a business model and they have to stay competitive. And they're subject to foreign competition. The sugar industry, which is big around here, obviously is going up against sugar cane and lower priced sugar. So they have a business model, American Crystal sugar as an example, has a business model that says we've got to pay these wages, which will control our costs because we have to compete in that market. So I would suggest that the wage they're paying the kind of market forces, if you can believe in the kind of free market that's out there, have already dictated the wage. They're paying what they can afford to pay and keep their product where at cost. And but still be able to attract employees. They're having a difficult time attracting employees. And I tend to think it's not just about the wage. It's about the environment to work in a manufacturing environment. Again, we don't have a lot of kids out there today aspiring to work in a manufacturing environment, which is too bad. We're trying to do things to change that.

CB: Let's talk about this. You said this particular use of the program is $20,000. I looked at some information about it. It sounds like pretty basic stuff they're learning is how to show up to work on time, things like that. So what are you looking to do to get an ROI on the $20,000?

DB: There is -- we're teaching work ethic, English as a second language. Basic measurement, basic hand tools. A lot of skills that you and I perhaps would have learned in middle school shop class.

CB: So the other 580 then is going to help veterans or who specifically?

DB: Those are just kind of allowing us to build our programs, high-tech programs, programs that result in $30 an hour jobs. Those are the programs that were ramping up, building up, we're recruiting for those programs. The federal grant itself from the department of labor was kind of initially designed to help all of the people who lost their jobs due to foreign competition. They're now trying to get back into the work force. So if you were laid off from one of our larger manufacturers that again, shift jobs to wherever they ship them to, whether it's Mexico, china, wherever they went, they are eligible to come to school for free in programs that are developed by this grant.

CB: I think we're get to go why people are upset about this. Because globalism is costing Americans jobs and revenue. You got more people out of the work force now than you did in the year 2000. Two more things quickly. You also E-mailed and said I have attached the redacted copy of the grant. You also left out boiler plate and copies of letters of support from corporations and public entities. Why not include those letters of support from the corporations?

DB: Well, it was kind of out of really respect for them. They all signed up. They are supportive of the grant and like to see us do things with that program. And without contacting each and every one of them, say hey --

CB: Why would they be ashamed of supporting this program?

DB: I don't know that they would. But I didn't have time to go out and talk to all those employers and say, I'm going to do this. Do you mind? I didn't think it was necessarily relevant. We're not trying to hide anything. I don't think they're trying to hide hair support for the program as well because they are the benefactors of us ramping up our training, producing more graduates from which they can employ.

CB: So the other 580 grand is going to a different program, different spectrum. How many students have you graduated from those programs and what's their job placement rate?

DB: Well, it's very fluid to use an overused term today. Okay? We're developing curriculum. We're building equipment. We filled to capacity. Students enrolled in the programs now that continue to enroll. So we've been counting graduates over the last couple years. And will continue to count those out --

CB: Could this be kind of an entry level to the marketing -- go hey, come take this and we can put you in this other program?

DB: That's our hope is that this --

CB: This is a $600,000 --

DB: It's a path. For these students --

CB: This is a path into other programs funded by 600 grand.

DB: They go through the program and hopefully find entry level work into manufacturers and then either on their own or perhaps sponsored by the manufacturer come pack as tuition payers into some of the other programs that we have had in place for some time.

CB: Interesting. Thank you so much for being here. Obviously this conversation is not over. We'd love to have you back. Especially as you get more results. Let us know if you need advertising, let me know.

DB: Okay. We'll do that. Thank you much.

CB: Stick around. We'd love to know your thoughts about this program. We talked about it at length here before on POV. Head to our web site. You can text us, E-mail us, leave us a voice mail. We'll be right back.