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Riverland to award 42 scholarships for students in high-demand workforce sectors

Answering the call for skilled workers amidst a workforce shortage in Minnesota, state government officials and educational leaders are offering a hand.

On Thursday morning, Riverland Community College hosted Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra, who held a presentation on workforce development scholarships that will be available for students to apply for this upcoming fall semester. These scholarships, worth $2,500 or more, will help launch students into a career that’s high in demand statewide.

“As I have traveled around the state, a theme that I consistently hear from employers is that Minnesota is facing a critical shortage of workers with skills needed for high-demand occupations,” Malhotra said. “Workforce Development Scholarships have proven to be an effective tool for attracting students into these fields and helping them find a path toward a satisfying and well-paying career.”

Minnesota has been facing a significant shortage of workforce with qualified skills required by employers, especially within certain sectors of the state’s economy. Back in 2017, $1 million was appropriated during the legislative session for a pilot program to fund scholarships to help draw students into careers that are in need of qualified, skilled workers. The results of the program were positively received, not just from students, but employers.

Riverland Community College students and Austin community partners applaud the announcement of the Workforce Scholarships for the upcoming year.

The Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association (MPMA) Education Foundation contributed $30,000 for scholarships for students entering advanced manufacturing programs at Minnesota State colleges.

With the success of the program gaining more momentum, the 2019 Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz approved significant expansions to the program, Malhotra said. Annual funding increased from $1 million in fiscal year 2019 to $2 million in fiscal year 2020 and $6 million in fiscal year 2021.

“We are grateful to the Legislature and Gov. Walz for this opportunity,” Malhotra said. “We look forward to awarding these scholarships to help meet the state’s workforce needs.”

This meant that the number of scholarships available went from about 400 in fiscal year 2019 to about 668 in fiscal year 2020 and 2,400 scholarships in fiscal year 2021. Every college in Minnesota State has at least 25 of those scholarships available for this upcoming fall semester, and some may have more.

This year, Riverland Community College will be able to award 42 scholarships amongst the three campuses in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna. With the additional contributions to 15 community partners in those areas, the scholarships amount to a total of $105,000, according to Janelle Koepke, dean of Institutional Advancement. Each student who qualifies for the scholarship are individuals who are pursuing an education in high-need career areas, such as advanced manufacturing, information technology, healthcare, transportation and agriculture.

Malhotra lauded Austin’s business partners, civic leaders, school system and other key community groups for the commitment of providing accessible educational opportunities for students. He noted that having partnerships provides limitless support for those seeking a career.

“One heartening thing is the strong partnerships among our civic leaders, business partners and others for promoting student success,” he said. “What we need is precisely the robust partnerships you have here in Austin. We need to come together and get a place at the table and address the workforce shortage.”

Caitlynn Blizzard, a nursing student at Riverland Community College, was a recipient of the Workforce Scholarship last year and described the impact having the financial aid to continue her studies as a nurse on Thursday morning.

The impact of the scholarship program was not lost to Caitlynn Blizzard, a nursing student at Riverland and a scholarship recipient from last year. She graduated high school and was taking post-secondary enrollment options (PSEO). She pursued higher education at Riverland to become a nurse, though being able to afford college was difficult on her own.

“I couldn’t apply for FAFSA because my mom had a very good job at Mayo Clinic,” Blizzard shared. “My parents aren’t ones to pay for my education. They wanted me to work and to earn that on my own with my own money. So I applied for these scholarships and I was thrilled.”

The biggest supporter of her obtaining the scholarship was Blizzard’s grandmother, who passed away from cancer back in March. Through it all, Blizzard felt the pride her grandmother felt about her receiving a scholarship to be able to continue her studies as a nurse.

“I was able to take her to the awards ceremony and see me get a $5,000 scholarship,” she said. “She had the biggest gleam in her eye…I just want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart who made this possible.”