, president of Alexandria Technical and Community
and Al Sholts, chief operating officer of Alexandria
business/education partnership can be model for other communities
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview June 19, 2015
John Adams, Paul Gilje
(executive director), Dan Loritz (chair), Dana Schroeder (associate
director), Fred Zimmerman. By phone: Dave Broden (vice chair), Randy
Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director), Al Sholts, Laura Urban.
Strong, visible support
for hands-on learning by the Alexandria, Minnesota, community has
led to success and innovation in both its new high school and the
Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC), say Al Sholts and
Laura Urban. Sholts, chief operating officer of Alexandria
Industries, and Urban, president of ATCC, extol the strong interest
in education by the Alexandria area business community and its solid
relationship with both the high school and ATCC.
Urban reports that about half of ATCC's
students come from more than 50 miles away from the campus. She
attributes the college's attractiveness to students from all over
the state to both the quality of its programs and its solid
relationships with the business community.
Sholts believes firmly in the importance
of creating relevance between what students are learning and the
practical world. He advocates changing from the traditional way
schools deliver curriculum to using applied learning in all subject
areas for all students, ensuring that students understand what
they're learning and how to apply it. Communities must leverage
business leaders to expose students to careers and help create a
passion so they'll continue their education, he says.
Sholts and others in the Alexandria
community worked together to incorporate that applied-learning model
into the new area high school, which opened in fall 2014. The
school, which a national technology magazine called the "Googleplex
of Schools," chose a small learning community model as the new way
to deliver curriculum to its students. Every student enrolls in one
of the school's three college and career academies. Career pathways
in each academy provide students with a plan to connect high school
coursework with college and career opportunities after graduation.
Urban points out that the use of the
state's Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program is growing
in the Alexandria region, so that some students earn a two-year
degree from ATCC by the time they graduate from high school. She
says that by using customized training and just-in-time training,
ATCC can meet the current and future needs of business for a trained
workforce both for the Alexandria community and statewide.
Al Sholts is chief
operating officer of Alexandria Industries in Alexandria, Minnesota.
He joined the company in 1977 as a machinist and took classes at
Alexandria Technical & Community College (ATCC) at the same time. At
his job, he gained experience in quality control, tooling and
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) applications. (CNC machines are
automated milling devices that make industrial components without
direct human assistance.) He received a two-year degree from ATCC in
machine tool technology in 1979.
Sholts has held various management
positions in Alexandria Industries, including machine shop manager,
value-added operations manager and vice president of manufacturing.
In 2006, he was named chief operating officer, with oversight of
sales, engineering and manufacturing.
Sholts has become passionate about
increasing the size of the Alexandria community's skilled workforce
and encouraging high school and college students to consider a
career in manufacturing. Sholts served on the ATCC Foundation board
for more than 20 years, participating on several advisory committees
for the college machine tool program.
He also was involved in creating a
revolutionary industrial technology lab at the new Alexandria Area
High School, which has been called the "Googleplex of Schools." He
also led the development of curriculum at the high school that
incorporates applied-learning skills. In 2014, Alexandria School
District 206 presented him with the ACE (A Champion in Education)
Award for his support of public education through advocacy,
partnership, service and donation of resources.
Laura Urban is president of Alexandria
Technical and Community College (ATCC) in Alexandria, Minnesota, a
position she has held since July 1, 2014. From 2010 to 2014, she
served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Gateway
Community and Technical College in Florence, Kentucky. She served at
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (near Hayward,
Wisconsin) as chief academic officer and academic dean from 2006 to
2010, and as a business and general studies dean at Wisconsin
Indianhead Technical College in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, from 1997 to
2006. She was the director of the Small Business Development Center
and program manager while at the University of Wisconsin-Superior
from 1990 to 1997. Currently, she serves on the Alexandria YMCA
Board of Directors and is president-elect of the Alexandria Rotary
Urban holds a bachelor's degree in
business administration from Northland College in Ashland,
Wisconsin, a master's degree in college student personnel
administration from Colorado State University and a doctorate in
education from Capella University.
The Civic Caucus has released
two recent statements on human capital: one in September 2014 laying
out the human-capital challenges facing the state today and in
coming years and a follow-up paper in
offering recommendations for maintaining a high-quality workforce in
Minnesota. The Civic Caucus interviewed Al Sholts and Laura Urban
from Alexandria to learn about (1) the successful cooperation there
among the community, employers, the high school and the Alexandria
Technical and Community College (ATCC); and (2) innovative programs
in the new Alexandria Area High School.
Information about Alexandria Industries.
Alexandria Industries is a short-lead-time producer of
engineered products. Customers for its contract manufacturing come
from a wide range of industries, markets and locations.
The company was founded in 1966 as
Alexandria Extrusion Company. (Aluminum extrusion is a manufacturing
process in which a heated, softened-state aluminum billet is forced
through a steel die to produce a continuous ribbon of the formed
product.) Soon after its founding, the company began adding other
services beyond its aluminum extrusion capabilities, such as
machining, fabrication, anodizing and assembly.
Five businesses, Alexandria Extrusion,
Alexandria Finishing, Alexandria Plastics, Alexandria Precision
Machining and Alexandria Welding, are all integral parts of
Alexandria Industries. Serving customers around the world, the
company says it has proven to be more than a supplier by becoming
the supply chain itself.
The company has three facilities in
Minnesota, two in Alexandria and one in Wheaton. It has an extrusion
facility in Indianapolis and a machining and fabrication facility in
suburban Dallas. The company has a total of 560 employees, with 450
Information about Alexandria Technical &
Community College (ATCC). The college is a two-year institution,
which started in 1961 as part of Alexandria School District 206. It
continued under the school district until it became part of the
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system in 1995.
ATCC's 2014-2015 enrollment was 4,311
students, with 52 percent attending full-time and 48 percent
part-time. Males make up 51 percent of the students and females 49
percent. Seven percent are students of color. Nearly half (48
percent) of the school's enrollment is made up of
nontraditional-aged students. The college attracts people from all
over the state, with 48 percent of the students coming from outside
a 50-mile radius of the school.
According to Minnesota's Office of Higher
Education, ATCC had a significantly higher three-year graduation
rate in 2012 (52 percent) than any other MnSCU two-year college. The
average rate for all two-year MnSCU colleges was 26 percent. Adding
in the 15 percent of students who transferred out to another
institution before graduation, ATCC had a three-year completion rate
of 67 percent, again the highest among the MnSCU two-year colleges.
Job placement rates for the college average more than 95 percent.
ATCC is recognized as a national leader in
advanced technical skills education, according to its website. Most
programs include hands-on, student-centered, experiential learning.
The school has a history of extensive partnerships with local,
state, national and international businesses and industries.
We need to change the traditional way we deliver curriculum to
students by using applied learning in all subject areas for all
learning shouldn't be restricted to only vocational curriculum, said
Al Sholts of Alexandria Industries. "The curriculum is fine and we
have some smart young people out there," he said. "Let's make sure
they understand what they're learning and how to apply it. We need
to change from traditional education methods to more of an
Leverage business leaders in the community
to expose kids to careers and help create a passion so they'll
continue their education. Sholts said students likely will not
be doing the same thing later in their careers that they'll be doing
straight out of school. "We have to ignite the passion that allows
them to continue to grow in their careers," he said.
Remove the bias against technical versus
academic degrees. People can make a living wage if they have
passion for what they're doing, Sholts asserted. They'll grow in
their careers if they have passion. "It's not the degree that makes
the difference," he said. "It's whether the person has been exposed
to careers and whether they like what they're doing."
Make higher education affordable by
ensuring the curriculum adds value to the degree and that students
can apply what they learn. Sholts believes the people setting up
curricula must make sure they get enough data from their consumers,
the students. "In industry," he said, "when we're cutting costs, we
have to figure out a better way to deliver our products." The same
thing is true in education, he said. We need to get feedback from
the students and from the businesses that both are getting what they
need in the most economical way.
ATCC is an open enrollment institution
(i.e., no selective enrollment requirements), except for the nursing
and law enforcement programs. ATCC President Laura Urban pointed
out that ATCC and other two-year MnSCU colleges accept students
without a high school diploma or GED. (There are some programs,
though, that do require a GED or high school diploma.)
"We take everyone at whatever level
they come to us," said Urban. "It's our responsibility to then help
them move through whatever program they eventually choose."
ATCC's curriculum must be relevant to
what's needed in the Alexandria area and around the state. Urban
said the local and statewide views are both important, since about
half the students come from the greater Alexandria area and half
from more than 50 miles from the college. "The attractiveness of the
college's programs to people from all over the state speaks highly
to the quality of those programs and to our relationships with the
business community," she said.
It's urgent to prepare people for the
workforce. The bottom line, Urban stated, is that because of
lower birth rates, there are fewer young people coming into the
workforce than there are baby boomers moving out of it. "And the
urgency isn't just with young people," she said. "How do we keep
adults motivated and coming back and upgrading and skilling up, as
well?" With the economy strong, she said, the college has taken a
big hit in the number of adults returning to school for training.
They've gone back to work. "How do we work with business and
industry to maintain a skilled workforce of adults, as well?" she
Declines in enrollment are causing "the
perfect storm" for ATCC and other two-year colleges. "The lower
birth rates affect not only the workforce, but also colleges like
ATCC," Urban said. "There are fewer people coming into our colleges,
with declines in enrollment across the country. Minnesota is no
exception and neither is Alexandria." The schools are left with
fewer bodies to go through workforce training, she said, coupled
with lower revenues from tuition and state aid. "We're looking at
how we can deliver education more effectively and more efficiently
with fewer students and fewer resources," she said.
ATCC works closely with business and
industry through advisory committees to help the school stay current
with its curriculum and equipment needs. Sholts said the college
has open arms and open ears to area businesses. "The school is very
proactive in finding solutions. It offers fantastic customized
training, not just regionally but across the state. The school
offers an open atmosphere if we or any other businesses have a need
ATCC is studying its market share with
young people and with adults now and in the future. Urban says
the school works very closely with its high school partners in the
region, making sure they're getting the information they need to
help their students progress into careers. Alexandria's high school
now operates on a career academy model, she said, which provides
students with college and career preparation at a much younger age
than before. "It brings business and industry more into the high
Alexandria Industries sees a crisis coming
in its own workforce. Sholts said the average age of the
company's employees is 42 and the range is from 18 to 70. Most of
the company's Minnesota employees, he said, are within a 65-mile
radius of its facilities. "We already struggle to find skilled and
unskilled workers," he said. "If we don't get something changed and
in place within 10 years, I think there's going to be a complete
worker shortage. Industries need the right number of people in the
right fields in order to grow."
The Alexandria community is trying to make
sure kids have exposure to their career opportunities. "We want
kids leaving high school to have a good feel for a career they'll go
into," Sholts said. "We want to make sure kids have the opportunity
to understand different career paths available to them and then to
find the appropriate education to lead to those paths."
In 2011, voters in the Alexandria School
District passed a $65 million referendum to build a new high school,
which opened in the fall of 2014. Community members had said
they wanted the new school to be like the Google campus. Its open,
flexible, naturally lighted design led technology magazine Fast
Company to herald it as the "Googleplex of Schools."
The school district chose the small
learning communities concept for the new high school as the way to
prepare Alexandria area students for college and career
opportunities. The school is organized into small learning
communities, collectively known as The Academies of Alexandria. The
small learning communities concept, which has been growing across
the country, is seen as an effective model to prepare all students
for both college and career. The district believes this is an
education program model that could be expanded or replicated
elsewhere in Minnesota.
Sholts described the academies:
Freshman Academy exposes ninth graders to career choices and
to the three academies below. At the end of their freshman year,
students will choose one of the academies in which they'll spend
their 10th- through 12th-grade years:
Business, Communication and Entrepreneurship;
Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources;
Health Sciences and Human Services.
Enrollments in the three academies beyond
freshman year are almost equal, Sholts said. The school's total
enrollment is around 1,200 students, with about 300 kids in each
grade. About 100 students from each grade are enrolled in each of
the three academies, making each academy's total enrollment of 10th-
through 12th-graders around 300.
Teachers follow the students through their
three years in an academy, Sholts said. Each academy has four to six
career pathways, such as Business, Management and Administration;
Manufacturing; and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Each
pathway includes a sequence of courses designed to help prepare
students for a specific career area and meet the requirements for
high school graduation.
Students can take courses in other
academies, if they choose, he said. The pathways provide students
with a plan to connect high school coursework with college and
career opportunities after graduation. Each academy has an advisory
board that looks at curriculum.
Sholts described a "Physics in
Manufacturing" course developed in the engineering academy that is
team-taught by a science teacher and an industrial arts teacher. The
class learned physics by building a radio-controlled car. The
students used computer-aided design (CAD) to design a bumper that,
after back-and-forth with engineers at Alexandria Industries, the
company and the students actually manufactured. Once a week,
engineers from various companies came in to expose the students to
what was going on in their facilities. The students also took field
trips to various businesses.
Alexandria's innovative high school
education program, centered on personalized learning, prepares
students for success in college and/or the workforce.
According to Jill Johnson of Alexandria
Area High School, students in all Academies must undertake a core
curriculum of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, PE/Health, and
General/Global Electives as a requirement for graduation. In
addition, she said, through the Academies model at the high school,
students are provided with project-based, interdisciplinary learning
that gives them "real-world" experience and provides connections
with local businesses and professionals. The Academies of Alexandria
model provides students with curriculum informed by local employers,
links schoolwork and real-life work skills to provide students with
employable skills, and plans that all students will have the
opportunity to undertake an internship before graduation.
Use of the Postsecondary Enrollment
Options (PSEO) program is growing in the Alexandria region. The
PSEO program allows Minnesota students in 11th and 12th grades to
take any or all of their courses at any Minnesota postsecondary
institution for free. Also, 10th-graders can take any postsecondary
technical course for free.
Urban said 48 PSEO students graduated this
year with both a high school diploma and a two-year degree from ATCC
at the same time. She said the PSEO students are mostly high school
juniors and seniors, although she thinks the number of Alexandria
sophomores taking technical courses through the program will grow,
as students move through the academy model and are exposed to
She said high school students who are
unable to come to ATCC's campus are taking an increasing number of
online courses offered by the college through its
The new Alexandria High School is looking
to the future with a special lab built into the school. "We're
trying to look to the future there through updated technology, such
as virtual welding," Sholts said. "And for ourselves as a company,
Alexandria Industries will have to change the way we manufacture."
He said because there are not enough workers, there will be more
automation. "We're automating heavily in our factories and we need
very good machinists who can work with robotics."
Education should be designed for people's
future careers, not just for education's sake. In the
traditional delivery of high school curriculum, Sholts said,
students do not understand how they're going to use the courses
they're taking. They'll be more motivated in their high school
classes if they can see how what they're learning applies to future
ATCC and other colleges can respond to
industry's needs right now. Urban said by using customized
training, just-in-time training and grants from the Minnesota Job
Skills Partnership program, the college can meet today's needs and
look into the future.
ATCC sees more need for remedial help
among its working-adult students who've been out of school for some
time than among young people right out of high school. The
biggest remedial need, Urban said, is in math. Students who come in
far behind on basic skills can take part in adult basic education
classes right on campus for free. Those who are just a little rusty,
she said, are given intensive advising and tutoring. "While more
students in other parts of the state may need remediation at various
levels," she said, "there's not as much need for extensive remedial
education here in the Alexandria region."
The reason Alexandria is successful in the
high school and at ATCC is that people in the community are willing
to work on education together. There is a great working
relationship among the high school, the college, the community and
business, Sholts said. We can discuss people's needs and come to a
solution. "It happens through good leaders who are very open to
change," he said.
Urban, who has been at ATCC for one year,
said her attraction to ATCC was the "tremendous, very visible
support for the college and the relationship between business and
the college. I've been to places where that has not been the case,"
It's important to create relevance between
what students are learning and the practical world. Sholts said
not all the curriculum changes planned at the Alexandria High School
are in place yet, but there are courses now that apply what students
have learned through hands-on projects. Physics students have
learned concepts by building a radio-controlled car; teachers are
working on a course that would use CAD to teach geometry; and in a
statistics course, students would create parts in a lab in the
school and measure the parts using a computer-controlled measuring
machine. They'll use the measurements to learn the concept of
Sholts said part of the accountability for
this applied learning model will be good test scores and a high
The key ingredients in making town and
gown work in Alexandria are communications and engagement. The
community feels engaged with ATCC and the high school, Urban said.
The college is represented in many community organizations and at
community events. Each of the college's programs meets every fall
with its own advisory committee, comprised of business and community
leaders, to make sure the curriculum is meeting the needs of
employers and the community.
Most ATCC students work part-time or
full-time. Urban noted that at least 65 percent to 75 percent of
students at the college work at least part-time, with a significant
number working full-time. Employers in Alexandria are very
accommodating to students, Sholts said. Businesses offer many
different shifts for students and have opportunities for working
part-time. Moreover, students who are working in an area that aligns
with their careers can practice their skills at work. Urban added
that a number of businesses offer tuition support for their
employees who are in school.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,