Pine County uses COVID recovery funding to help train future workforce

Pine County, Minnesota is using some of its COVID recovery funding to help educate and train its future workforce.

The county is offering free two-year scholarships to all local, graduating high school seniors who want it at Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City.

For Domanick Piekarski, his focus is on the automotive industry.

"It’s just one big puzzle, figuring out what’s wrong with it. Find the missing piece and making it work again," he said.

Meanwhile, Ally Schwartz has her eye on business and communications.

"I will get my associate’s degree without spending a penny, and I think that’s a really great opportunity that not a lot of people have."

Both students are enrolled this fall at Pine Technical and Community College, taking advantage of scholarship offers with ambitious plans for their futures.

"I always thought to do something with my hands," Piekarski said. "I couldn’t sit still in the classroom… wrenching on cars is something I found a passion for."

The Pine County College Initiative includes two free years of higher education at the local technical and community college. There are no barriers for admission, and it is open to almost every program, from nursing to cyber security.

Every high school graduate from in Pine County is eligible, including classes 2020-2021-and -2022.

"Our hope is that it provides a pathway for people to stay in the region and get really high quality and in-demand skills and go to work for some of the businesses in the area," said Pine Technical and Community College President Joe Mulford.

Mulford explained the power of the regional scholarship idea first took hold several years ago when local business executive and entrepreneur Dennis Frandsen gifted scholarships to the entire senior class at Rush City High School.

Frandsen’s foundation has since added more area schools, and now the county itself is investing some $450,000 of COVID-19 relief funding into what leaders describe as workforce development.

"We have made the decision to try to do things with our money that would have some lasting effect," said Steve Hallan, Pine County Commissioner.

The school figures each scholarship has a cash monetary value of about $12,000 for every graduating high school senior. The mission is crystal clear: to educate and train the workforce in a pocket of Minnesota that desperately needs workers.

"What we’re hearing and what the county officials have heard is there’s businesses that just aren’t expanding to pursue opportunity because they just can’t meet the workforce need," Mulford said.

With a new academic year flush with scholarship opportunities on the horizon – and a county fair coming up – officials say there is a lot to get excited about.

"At the county, we’re also a little selfish because we need good, trained workers, and anytime you can have an educated workforce, it just helps everybody," Steve Hallan said.