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Hibbing Community College HVAC instructor Clint Spotts checks current on a control board.

It’s four-o-clock in the morning.

And it’s the only time that an Iron Range mine has available to test some of its welders.

No worries.

Advanced Minnesota will be there.

Anytime. Anywhere.

Advanced Minnesota, a customized training provider born from a partnership of northeastern Minnesota’s five community colleges, has taken the lead in supplying a pipeline of well-trained workers to the region’s iron ore industry.

Each year, Advanced Minnesota, the training arm of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED), trains more than 15,000 employees for the iron ore industry, area businesses and other customers. About 13,500 of the total trained each year are iron ore industry and mining-related workers.

“We’re an integral part of the region’s economy and we do it very quietly and very professionally,” said Roy Smith, Advanced Minnesota director of talent development. “When we hang that Advanced Minnesota banner on something, it is top quality.”

Advanced Minnesota’s mission is to respond to the needs of regional industries and businesses for qualified workers by providing a single point of customized training and continuing education. It also brings four-year and graduate degree programs to the region to improve individual worker skills.

NHED is part of the Minnesota State higher education system. NHED includes Hibbing Community, College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College, and Vermilion Community College.

For years, each NHED college conducted its own training programs.

However, since placing all five colleges under one training umbrella, Advanced Minnesota has grown to become northeastern Minnesota’s leading provider of training to the iron ore industry and others.

Statewide, it’s also become recognized as a leader in providing comprehensive workforce solutions.

“Within Minnesota State customized training programs, we are at the top as far as being the most successful in the state in the number of people we train,” said Gail Anderson, Advanced Minnesota operations manager. “And we do more than just train. We provide so many services that people aren’t aware of like consulting, assessments, testing, testing for school district safety and health, inspections for safety and health, and for counties and cities.”

All six northeastern Minnesota iron ore operations, along with mining vendors, suppliers and regional companies, utilize Advanced Minnesota for employee training and to improve worker skills.

“We have always worked with the mines,” said Mary Brandt, Advanced Minnesota customized training representative. “It all started back in the early 1990’s at Hibbing Community College and the focus then was on finding what worked best for the mining companies.”

Ted Erickson, senior environmental, health and safety specialist at Komatsu Mining Corp. in Virginia, says Advanced Minnesota’s training is working well for the mining equipment supplier.

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Hibbing Community College electrical technology student Levi Lindner installs an outlet in the classroom.

“Advanced Minnesota helps us a lot with our OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and MSHA (Mine Safety and Health administration) training,” said Erickson. “They also helped us find financing for a welding instructor to teach our new hires and refresh our seasoned workers. Locally, it’s a great resource to have here in northern Minnesota. We do have an instruction facility in Milwaukee, so having the training locally and regional is vital for our business.”

Advanced Minnesota’s internal instruction staff of 12 is made up of instructors who are experts in a variety of occupations. Some are former mining company employees. An adjunct staff of 70-100 instructors, along with teaching staff at each of the colleges, compliment the internal staff.

“Small size and flexibility allows us to react very quickly,” said Smith. “We have access to a wide variety of very talented faculty to help us do our training and design curriculum. And we do training offsite, which is essential for many companies.”

An MSHA course that’s mandatory for new iron ore industry employees and as an annual refresher to current iron ore workers, is Advanced Minnesota’s most in-demand course.

“In just looking at MSHA training over the past year, we’ve had a 23 percent increase in the number of people trained,” said Anderson. “We have definitely expanded our training, especially in the industrial sector.”

Skilled craft courses such as maintenance mechanic, auto/diesel mechanic, welding, electrical, instrumentation, and sheet metal, are among other popular programs serving the iron ore industry.

Advanced Minnesota’s goal is to respond to customer needs, providing training at the colleges or on-site at iron ore operations or businesses, whenever needed. Programs are developed and customized by each industry at the company’s request. Some of its programs, like MSHA training, are mandated by state and federal agencies.

“Training takes place wherever the companies want us to do their training,” said Smith. “We are really, really customer friendly. I know we’ve had people out at a mine at three or four in the morning because that’s the only time they could run their weld tests.”

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Hibbing Community College electrical maintenance class students Rodney Kischel and Giovanni Marolt team up on a project.

John Baxter, director of Minnesota labor relations for iron ore pellet producer Cleveland-Cliffs, says Advanced Minnesota fills an important need for the company.

Virtually all of United Taconite’s more than 500 employees have taken Advanced Minnesota courses, said Baxter.

“We rely on them a lot for our training needs,” said Baxter. “They are a good asset for a company like ours. I have to say that they are very customer-oriented in getting the training we need and they don’t charge an arm and a leg. If two (mining) companies need the same training, they try to coordinate it with both companies.”

Courses such as MSHA training, apprenticeship training, shaft alignment, environmental, lubrication, and rigging, are among Advanced Minnesota courses utilized by United Taconite. An introduction to iron ore processing course teaches employees about how operations work at its Fairlane processing plant in Forbes.

“It’s quite detailed,” said Baxter. “It really gives them a leg up on how things flow at Forbes.”

Advanced Minnesota and Cleveland-Cliffs are currently in the process of developing a similar 24-hour program called Mining 101. The program will provide employees with a step-by-step education of its United Taconite Thunderbird Mine operations in Eveleth.

“It will give employees a good overview of how mining and crushing work together and how we make it flow well to the plant,” said Baxter.

“It will give employees a better understanding of the (mining) process and what happens down the road from when you first see the product to when it goes out the door,” said Anderson.

Advanced Minnesota is a key resource to Cleveland-Cliffs, said Baxter.

“It provides training resources that would be a lot more expensive for each mine to have available,” said Baxter.

Beyond training to the iron ore industry, Advanced Minnesota offers programs such as fire, rescue, emergency medical services, apprenticeship, simulator, healthcare, continuing education, organizational development, safety and health, county employment services, process improvement, computer services, business management, commercial drivers license, and others.

Revenue from customers, along with grants from entities such as the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, CareerForce of Virginia, Minnesota State, Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, and MSHA, support programming.

Advanced Minnesota’s future looks bright, said Anderson.

An expansion to the west with Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, is in development.

“Our charge is to develop a more robust customized training program in the Bemidji area as part of Minnesota State’s eight regional redistricts,” said Anderson.

For a training program rooted in support of Iron Range mining, Smith sees potential for additional program development.

Advanced Minnesota is seeking to develop a mobile training laboratory with simulators that can be taken to area high schools and industries. And with a tight labor market, an increasing number of companies are seeking to retain workers by providing them with the skills offered by Advanced Minnesota.

With its success, Advanced Minnesota today is serving as a model in the development of workforce solutions at other Minnesota State colleges, said Smith.

“We are really the first of the Minnesota State schools to decide that to be competing to be the same was a losing battle,” said Smith. “To put it all together under one roof was a revolutionary idea. The potential for growth is unlimited. Clearly, we’re recognized as a valuable asset to the region and to the colleges.”

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