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Center for Workforce Solutions shapes private workforce solutions in Willmar, across Minnesota

The Center for Workforce Solutions is dedicated to shaping private workforce solutions across Minnesota. The Center has three primary areas of focus – the Business Education Network; Workforce Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and elevating the importance of immigrants to Minnesota.

The Business Education Network (BEN) is a partnership with more than 25 local and regional chambers. These employer-driven efforts focus on high-demand careers specific to their region’s business and cultural assets. The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber is starting a new partnership with the New Vision Foundation. Below is a conversation between the Chamber's Jennifer Byers and Ken Warner, President, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber.

Jennifer Byers: Tell us about the Willmar Business Education Network and how Willmar area businesses are working to develop pipelines to high-demand careers in the region. 

Ken Warner: Our goal is to develop our community’s future workforce by providing students with a deeper understanding of career opportunities and aligning skills with current workforce needs; engaging employers directly with students, education and training providers; and better-aligning programs and curricula to the realities of West Central Minnesota and overall Minnesota economy. 

Our BEN program presented the CEO in the Classroom presentation to the 8th graders at the Willmar Middle School. We are working to provide students information on what each field or business does on a daily basis (brief overview), any classes that were helpful at the high school or college level to achieve your role, what type of education was needed for your role (certification, 2-year degree, 4-year degree), and basic skills that help make your job easier (social skills, organizational skills, etc.).
Jennifer Byers: New Vision Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create pathways to success by motivating disadvantaged youth in Minnesota through coding and digital literacy classes. Your work has primarily been focused in the Twin Cities. Describe the new opportunity in Willmar? How did this partnership develop? 

Ken Warner: It truly was a connection via the Minnesota Chamber and New Vision that Willmar was introduced to this idea. Having a large Somali population makes us an ideal place to start in greater Minnesota.   

We are really excited to partner with New Vision as a pilot project in greater Minnesota through our BEN program. Modeled after a program designed by New Vision Foundation, we intend to provide local coding and digital literacy class opportunities to disadvantaged youth in Kandiyohi County. Our target population is students of color, including immigrant and refugee youth, ages 13-18, and the business and education communities. The classes will be held before or after the regular school day, thereby not interfering with a student’s required coursework. By providing these opportunities, we can help students develop workforce skills that lead to full-time employment in industries such as engineering or web design. Local partners in this venture may include Willmar Public Schools and/or Ridgewater College and local businesses. Successful completion of the program may include education credit recognition or professional certification. The other exciting part is that the teacher will be Somali, so the students will have a teacher that is reflective of their culture.   

Jennifer Byers: How have you overcome any potential hurdles? How is the program funded?

Ken Warner: New Vision founder Hussein Farah is developing a classroom/office in the Somali-owned Mid Town Plaza Mall building downtown. Of course, with supply chain shortages and actual construction people to do the work, we can’t get it done as fast as we’d like. Hussein really wants to show his commitment to the Willmar community and the youth we’ll be serving.

The Chamber has committed $10,000 to the program and we received a grant from the Willmar Area Community Foundation for $5,000. We are looking at other grant opportunities through the Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF), Bremer, Target, Walmart, etc. 

Jennifer Byers: What are the desired outcomes?

Ken Warner: From my viewpoint, I really hope it helps us retain the Somali youth in our community to live and work. So many times when the Somali student goes off to college, it’s just not the student that goes, it’s the whole family and they don’t return. It definitely affects our workforce, especially in these times with a shortage of workers everywhere. We need to start seeing these New Americans as CPAs, bankers, dentists, lawyers, etc., and I think taking opportunities like New Vision, where students can learn coding and other skills, it put us on that New American community retention and skilled job opportunities.      

Want to learn more about the Business Education Network?

Read the report on the Business Education Network's first five years of solving workforce challenges around the state.



For more information or to start a Business Education Network in your community, contact Jennifer Byers at 651.292.4673 or