PIPELINE Project helps students earn while they learn

Aside from the relatively few academic and athletic scholarships available, can students get college training for good jobs absolutely free?

In Minnesota, fortunately, they can. Through the PIPELINE Project, a partnership between the state’s Department of Labor and private industry, employees may “earn while they learn” as part-time students.

PIPELINE, which stands for Private Investment, Public Education, Labor and Industry Experience, awards tuition grants of up to $6,000 dollars per person, per year to companies operating in four high-growth areas: advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care services and information technology.

Established by the state Legislature in 2014, the PIPELINE Project was designed “to develop and enhance Minnesota’s skilled work force,” said Heather McGannon, director of projects and planning at the Department of Labor and Industry. The goal was to “expand employment-based, dual-training programs,” she said.

Some of the occupations covered by the grants include machinist, computer numeric control operator, agronomist, food safety supervisor, health support specialist, medical assistant, software developer and security analyst.

In 2015, the first year in which grants were awarded, 15 employers received a combined total of more than $490,000 to support the training of 125 students. By March 2017, more than 500 companies and nearly 350 students were participating, with more than $1.4 million awarded. Companies that have at least $25 million in annual revenue, including well-known Minnesota employers Hormel Foods, 3M, and Fairview Health Services, pay 25 percent of tuition costs.

Employers, who apply for the PIPELINE grants, create the courses for their workers.

“They must include 144 hours of technical instruction, 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 50 hours of safety training,” said McGannon.

Upon completion of the courses, students earn state or national certificates that substantiate their credentials.

At Design Ready Controls in Brooklyn Park, approximately 25 employees are currently enrolled in the program, said Chief Technology Officer Mitch DeJong, Ph.D. The company, which manufactures electrical control panels such as those in air conditioners and traffic lights, typically partners with Hennepin Technical College and Minnesota State University, Mankato, where employees take courses at night or online.

“We would rather train workers to operate machines that assemble our products than have that assembly done by hand,” said DeJong. “Automation brings value to the manufacturing process and allows us to pay our employees higher wages.”

To qualify for the PIPELINE program, employees at Design Ready Controls must have been at the company for at least six months and be in good standing with their supervisor.

Once enrolled in school, employees work toward two-year or four-year degrees, which can lead to careers as mechanical or electrical engineers—all at no cost to themselves.