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Made in Minnesota

Our state is becoming a hotbed for U.S.-made heritage products. Now we just need to find and train sewers to do the work.

Made in Minnesota: Faribault Woolen Mills, Red Wing Shoes, and Duluth Pack
Stephanie Colgan

HAVE SEWING SKILLS, GET HIRED

Who: Faribault Woolen Mills
What: Maker of wool blankets and accessories since 1865
Where: Faribault
Employment: Currently 10 sewers; expects to double

What: Bridal and ready-to-wear women’s fashion by Joy Teiken
Where: Minneapolis
Employment: Currently two sewers; anticipates growing to seven

Who: Irely Intimates
What: Women’s lingerie
Where: St. Paul
Employment: Currently three sewers; needs more. Has been looking overseas because it can’t find them locally

Who: CLG Enterprises
What: Contract sewing for medical- product companies and manufacturer of Rodeo Gear, protective vests, gear bags, and leather straps for cowboys
Where: Minneapolis
Employment: Currently 20 sewers; will need six to 10 more

Guarino estimates that training a new generation of inexperienced workers could cost J.W. Hulme $100,000 in the next few years. And she knows she’s not alone. Entrepreneur Monica Nassif recently launched luxury sleepwear line Sophia Graydon in Minneapolis with the goal of “bringing back a lost industry.” Little did she know how challenging it would be to find Twin Cities sewers with experience working on fine fabrics and detailed construction. Minneapolis-based fashion designer Joy Teiken currently employs two sewers but says she has enough interest in her JoynoĆ«lle brand to hire five more. “As an independent designer, production has been the issue I’ve run into from the very beginning,” Teiken says. “I’ve seen the need for years and believe now is the time to make something happen.”

Guarino took it upon herself to do just that. Tatjana Hutnyak is business services manager for Lifetrack Resources, a St. Paul–based organization that provides job training and placement, particularly for immigrants and individuals with employment barriers. When Guarino met Hutnyak at a networking event, the light went on. After some discussion, the two hatched a plan. Hutnyak reached out to Dunwoody College of Technology. Guarino rallied more than a dozen local companies. The Makers Coalition was born.

In January, Dunwoody will welcome its first class of 18 students to the new Sewing & Production Specialist Program. Designed with input from business leaders, the accelerated 20- to 24-week program is non-credit to keep costs down and get students into the workforce faster. Training will happen onsite at some of the manufacturers participating in the Makers Coalition, including two in Minneapolis: Airtex Design Group, which manufactures private-label home fashions, and Kelle Company, maker of dance costumes. This way, students learn on the equipment they will be expected to operate. Tuition for the Dunwoody program will run about $3,600, but Lifetrack received a $75,000 United Way grant to pay for curriculum development and scholarships for the first class.

This is not a sewing course for the fashion-design student who dreams of appearing on Project Runway. Rather, it’s an industry-oriented training program for folks like Osman who want to develop a skill and land a respectable job that can pay anywhere from $12 to $16 an hour.

“There are a lot of diverse groups—immigrants who come to this country with skills, high-school kids who don’t know what they want to do yet,” says Dunwoody director of program development Debra Kerrigan. “As a society we’ve been pushing people into four-year degree programs and ignoring those skills.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is working on legislation to strengthen workforce-training programs like this new one at Dunwoody, believes America needs to reevaluate what is considered a “good” job.

 “Sometimes it’s not just the students but the parents that need to understand it pays well to be a welder—that is actually a viable career option,” Klobuchar says. “Of course we need four-year degrees, but we also need people who go into the workforce after two years, or even a few months, without student loans. There are lots of jobs available. We’re just in need of some workforce training.”

Dunwoody’s job placement rate is 95 percent—100 percent in manufacturing.

The sewing program will help local companies fill some immediate hiring needs, but there is a bigger picture to consider. Guarino believes programs such as this are the next step in turning Minnesota, already home to several keystone heritage brands, into a national hub for sewing production. Klobuchar agrees. “We have a history of making things in our state, from the pacemaker to the Post-it note. It makes me think we have this opportunity.”

Now it’s up to industry and educators to convince others like Osman, when they are just starting out, that sewing can become a fruitful career.



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