Neal St. Anthony
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Kyla Sharp works in a factory.

However, she thinks of herself as a creative working in color.

“I pretty much consider myself to be an amateur artist in the sense that I love to paint, build and create things,” said Sharp, whose conversation is infused with chuckles. “I am a logical thinker. Getting in a creative space allows me to tap into my brain. And I’ve always been into using my hands. I love to build electronic-control panels. If you take out all the technicalities, it is art. Putting the wires into the panels is like the stroke of a brush. It allows me to express myself. People sometimes say ‘Wow, you did that?’ ”

Sharp, 27, a single mom and community-college graduate, has ditched the life of temporary office jobs for steady work and good benefits, plus career-building training at Design Ready Controls in Brooklyn Park. She completed an electronics-training program at Summit Academy on the North Side a couple of years ago and is one of nearly 40 trainees, all minorities, who have been hired by Design Ready.

She reads plans and assembles color-coordinated electronic-control panels for industrial equipment.

“Summit was an intense mental and emotional roller coaster,” she recalled. “I got up early and took two buses to get to Summit from St. Paul.

“I grew up in Chicago and was working as a machine operator. But I was one of the only women and making less than the men. I wanted a trade and a career. I moved here for a better life for me and my daughter. I decided to get a trade over dead-end jobs with temp agencies.”

Design Ready’s huge plant is big, clean and colorful. Employees add personal touches to their workstations. Sharp often dons earphones to listen to music that helps her focus, “feel at home” and inspires her technical artistry.

Design Ready generally starts assemblers around $15 an hour. The pay can top $20, as employees progress, pass in-plant certifications and community-college classes and move into even better paying occupations.

“I see myself in five years with my degree in automation robotics-engineering technology and advancing my career,” Sharp said. “My main concern was upward mobility. I don’t want to stagnate. With this company, they showed me the ways to advance. I said: ‘It’s go time.’ ”

Sharp embodies the surging growth in Twin Cities-area minority employment since the Great Recession.

Minority employment rose 50% to 430,520 workers in the nine years ended in 2018. White employment rose 10% to 1.55 million jobs, according to regional labor economist Tim O’Neill of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The change is driven by fast-retiring, mostly white baby boomers increasingly replaced by minorities and immigrants.

The Minnesota economy, with historically low unemployment, needs everybody on deck to grow.

Increasingly, employers such as Design Ready, Atomic Data, Abbott Northwestern Hospital, U.S. Bank and more are forming relationships with nonprofit training programs such as Summit Academy, Project for Pride in Living and Twin Cities RISE to train entry-level apprentices for jobs as bank tellers, factory workers, bus drivers, carpenters and entry-level IT workers.

Mitch DeJong, chief technology officer at 500-worker Design Ready, said half of its new hires are minorities.

The flagship Brooklyn Park campus is approaching 50% female and minority employees. Design Ready has a relationship with Summit Academy that has added 30 entry-level employees since 2017.

“We’re getting fantastic people out of Summit Academy,” DeJong said. “We have a really good persistence rate with Summit Academy of 70 to 80.”

That’s much higher than the overall percentage of employees who left in one year in 2017.

“It’s not just about replacing people,” DeJong said. “We need people to grow. Summit’s 20-week electronics program teaches [apprentices] the basics to plug into our jobs, starting as an assembler. That’s $14 to $17 an hour. And they can go to Hennepin Tech and get a two-year degree. We have the classes here in our facility. We want the Summit certificate to count toward that associate degree.”

Sharp’s ambition and expertise and love for electronics-tech work has inspired her 10-year-old daughter.

“She is a great daughter,” Sharp said. “She supports what I’m doing. She thinks my work is interesting. She loves math and science.”

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