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Telepresence Helps Displaced Workers Learn New Skills in Upper Midwest

Bringing training to the workers

Students attend a class using teleconference technology.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Last year, a new consortium of area colleges teamed with Video Guidance to create a video conferencing program that connects companies and colleges to upgrade skills of the manufacturing workforce to fill advanced positions. The consortium to date has already served 300 workers representing 38 companies through the customized training courses. The consortium provides the training courses at no charge thanks to a federal Department of Labor grant.

The creative education program features a new telepresence video conferencing system, deployed by Video Guidance (, a visual communications company based in Bloomington, Minn.

“The hybrid courses provide students with the best of both worlds: the ability to connect live with their instructor via the Video Guidance technology, along with the convenience of an online course,” said Rebekah Kent, director of strategic grant initiatives at Central Lakes College, the lead college of the consortium. “One of the reasons for the program’s success is that students do not have to leave their place of work to participate in these skill development courses.”

Since the recent recession, thousands of manufacturing workers in Minnesota and Wisconsin have either lost their jobs, or were caught between a severe gap between lower-skilled workers and high-skilled jobs. The program is designed to educate veterans as well as trade-impacted and other dislocated workers, with the expectation it will lead to high-wage, high-skilled employment outcomes for more than 3,900 workers in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Jeremy Trentor, an employee at Webster, Wis., facility of the Nexen Group, has benefitted from the program because he was able to take the courses using his company’s desktop computer while working fulltime.

Vince Zilka of McNally Industries in Grantsburg, Wis., received advanced manufacturing technology training under this program.

“We are very grateful for these free online courses to be available to our employees,” said Blake Seas, Nexen’s director of manufacturing. “This program allows Jeremy to take a break from his work, attend class, then go back to his work once class is finished — all without leaving our facility. This unique learning opportunity is beneficial to our employees and to our company, and we are looking forward to having more of these courses available in the future.”

The core manufacturing courses are designed to expand the educated labor pool. Enhanced online courses emphasize advanced manufacturing areas of machining, metals, plastics and composites, automation technology and rapid prototyping.

The Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant helped to form the consortium, which created the Advanced Manufacturing Education Alliance (AME), Central Lakes College (CLC) of Staples and Brainerd, Pine Technical College of Pine City and St. Cloud Technical and Community College, formed the Minnesota consortium with fellow members of the state’s 360º Manufacturing and Applied Engineering Center of Excellence at Bemidji State University. The consortium’s net reaches workers in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.

“It’s exciting to be able to offer this kind of customized training to our partners,” said Heidi Braun of Pine Technical and Community College. “The outreach of services that the colleges will be able to provide to business and industry with this technology is not only unique, but extremely successful.”

The consortium is working on a sustainability model to continue this video conferencing training after the conclusion of the grant. The plan will allow colleges to gain capacity in what they can offer to business and industry, as well as a model that will fit into the MnSCU system.