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Riverland CC Gets $2M for Tech Upgrades, Robotics Program

Riverland Community College in Minnesota is building capacity to train technicians in manufacturing and logistics, as well as launching a new robotics certificate program and planning a robotics degree in the future.

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(TNS) — Riverland Community College has received a $2 million grant to upgrade equipment used by students in manufacturing and transportation programs on its Albert Lea and Owatonna campuses, as well as launch a new robotics engineering program in the fall of 2023.

Riverland is looking to strengthen the pipeline for skilled technicians in manufacturing, commercial truck drivers, welders and people trained in distribution and logistics, where business demand for such jobs is growing.

The money will fund a workforce initiative called Learn and Earn and was secured by Minnesota's U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.

In addition to launching a new robotics certificate program in the fall, Riverland will start a diploma and associate of applied science degree in robotics in the future. Riverland plans to purchase industrial robots, industrial control systems, optical sensors and other equipment for the school's advanced manufacturing programs with the grant money.

"Having significant dollars to put towards equipment is very significant for Riverland, and really can elevate the technological aspects of our programs," said Janelle Koepke, Riverland's dean of institutional advancement, who helped author the grant.

Officials say Riverland is focused on increasing transportation training opportunities due to market demand for drivers. The school will purchase an additional semi-truck and passenger bus to grow its capacity for transportation training.

Approximately $1.7 million of grant will be used to upgrade equipment to meet industry standards for training students in its manufacturing and transportation programs. The rest, $275,000 of the award, will be allocated to engage businesses to develop a Learn and Earn model for learners. That will allow students to enroll in manufacturing and transportation programs while working part-time for partner businesses.

Manufacturing is the second largest industry in the Southeast Minnesota Economic Development Region 10. Research shows that the need for electro-mechanical technicians in the region will grow by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030 and that there are 243 current job openings.

These jobs pay on average $8.23 more an hour than the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act Basic Needs Cost of Living Estimates.

There are currently 14,250 job openings in transportation and material moving occupations in Minnesota, including nearly 3,000 openings for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers. That number is expected to grow by 6.6 percent in new jobs. Experts are projecting 16,449 job openings due to replacement needs as people leave the labor force for retirements or other reasons.

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers have a median wage of $51,248 a year, which is higher per hour than the state's average median wage.

Riverland also plans to recruit a diverse pool of faculty to educate and retain diverse students who make up a growing percentage of the labor pool.

"The allocation will enable an investment into high-tech instructional equipment and create Learn and Earn opportunities for students with the cooperation of employers in high-demand fields, such as manufacturing and transportation," said Riverland President Adenuga Atewologun. "For employers who are currently experiencing unprecedented workforce challenges and shortages, the Learn and Earn initiative is a strategic investment in Riverland Community College to meet workforce development needs in the region we serve."

©2023 the Post-Bulletin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.