Neal St. Anthony
See more of the story

There’s no need to panic if Amazon doesn’t bite on Minnesota’s modest offer to locate the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters in the Twin Cities.

Employers are hanging “now hiring” signs in thousands of windows.

Minnesota manufacturers have 6,000-plus job openings. And we don’t have to pay the kind of incentives bounty that Amazon wants.

This month, Minneapolis-based Graco, the global manufacturer of spraying and fluid-handling equipment, played host to about 150 Minneapolis high school students at its Northeast flagship facilities that employ about 750.

Graco starts high school graduates at $15 an hour for assembly jobs, including training-and-advancement opportunities such as tuition reimbursement for those wishing to pursue two-year degrees at local colleges.

Kayla Pollard and Jose Garcia Jr., students at Minneapolis Roosevelt High, received an extended tour at Graco’s clean, high-tech factory. They performed a few hands-on projects as they listened to manufacturing managers such as Eric Galush, a 30-year veteran, and younger engineers and workers explain how products are designed, manufactured and assembled for carmakers and food processors.

“This kind of speaks to me,” Pollard said. “It’s hands-on. The design process is very interesting.

“The machines are interesting and the work touches a lot of people. The Graco people seemed interested in us.”

In fact, at a couple of stations on the tour, Graco employees Wyatt Hammell, Matt Sullivan and Sam Stewart designed exercises for the students that helped them understand “supply chains” and how a Graco sprayer paints a car and how another one paints the colors on M&M’s in a candy factory.

Hundreds of the nearly 8,000 Minnesota manufacturers, often working in partnership with area community and technical colleges and the state economic development department, opened their doors this month to high school students who are thinking about careers making things.

A manufacturing association even pays for the school buses to the plants.

“These are not your grandpa’s manufacturing jobs,” said Lynn Shelton, vice president of marketing at Enterprise Minnesota, a consultant and advocate for manufacturers. “Our clients are looking for workers at all levels of their organizations and working hand-in-glove with high schools and technical colleges around the state to make sure those jobs get filled.”

The average annual wage for full-time manufacturing jobs was $63,236 in 2015, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. That’s 15 percent higher than the average wage for all industries.”

And there are skilled, veteran workers on the shop floor at Graco who make $70,000, plus benefits. After the Graco tour, the Minneapolis students got snacks in the lunchroom and the chance to talk with Graco HR counselors and community college representatives about jobs and career pathways.

Many employers cover some or all of the cost of certifications and degrees through two-year colleges, such as Hennepin Tech, Minneapolis Community & Technical College and St. Paul College. The students aren’t overburdened with college debt.

Manufacturing is the largest component of Minnesota economic output, totaling $48.6 billion last year in industries as diverse as medical products, food and technology.

After years of contraction, Minnesota’s high-value manufacturing industries are expanding. Wages are rising, partly thanks to demand for skilled and trainable workers. And economists say workforce development for fast-growing clean energy industries, precision manufacturing and other areas is key to creating new jobs while replacing retiring baby boomers.

We need more trained and trainable workers to grow and prosper.

The future of the state economy is dependent on a ready-to-train, adaptable workforce graduating high school. And it will be increasingly diverse. More than a third of Graco workers at its headquarters campus are minorities, as were most of the students who visited this month.

We should be grateful for the Amazon distribution center in Shakopee and software office in Minneapolis that employ around 2,500.

Indeed, our best, most economical growth prospects are the firms that are here. Homegrown and otherwise.

For example, Uponor, the Finnish firm that has made the Twin Cities its North American headquarters in 1990, employs 700-plus at its recently expanded manufacturing-and-distribution hub in Apple Valley. It also is opening a big factory in Hutchinson to make its heating-and-cooling pipes.

The company can’t find enough workers to meet growing demand for its products.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.