It's no secret that our workforce is one of our state's greatest assets. Minnesota is home to some of the best educated, hardest working people in the country.
We have the numbers to back that up. As of October, the unemployment rate here was just 3.3 percent, well below the national average. When U.S. News named Minnesota the third best state to live in earlier this year, they cited our outstanding labor force participation. And last year, employment in Minnesota grew at a faster rate than in any of our neighboring states.
If we're committed to continue hitting those marks, we need to be committed to strong investments in our workforce. And apprenticeship programs offer one of the best investments we can make. Last month, my office marked National Apprenticeship Week with meetings around Minnesota to assess what workforce initiatives are working and how we can do better.
There are many successful job training programs across our state.
In Rochester, the school district is partnering with local employers and Rochester Community Technical College to pair high school students with training opportunities in the region's highest-demand career fields. They wrapped their first year in June with 1,600 kids having already completed a course in the program.
And as part of the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, CentraCare in St. Cloud is helping equip the next generation of healthcare leaders with the high-demand skills they need for careers in the area.
Further north, Mesabi Range's Advanced Welding Technology Program is going strong: 97 percent of their graduates get jobs after completing the two-year program.
We can and should be doing even more to expand opportunities like these.
Many parents or grandparents have heard of the Minnesota College Savings Plan, a '529' education savings account. With a '529' plan Minnesotans can save money to pay for college by allowing their savings to grow tax-free. Our state puts them to good use, too. More than 31,000 Minnesotans have one of these accounts.
But there's a gap in how the accounts are currently structured: '529' education accounts are not available to people who want to pursue an education outside of traditional four-year and vocational schools. That doesn't make economic sense, and it's not fair to a growing number of people.
That's why I am leading a bill to allow people to take advantage of these accounts to pay for training or credentialing programs. So if your daughter or son wants to pursue a certificate in heavy machining for a job at a manufacturing plant nearby, you can save for that future tax-free the same way you could save for a four-year college.
I've also partnered with Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine to boost apprenticeship opportunities with funding for states that create and expand tuition assistance geared toward participants in pre-apprenticeship and Registered Apprenticeship programs. And I am working to pass the bipartisan Apprenticeships and Jobs Training Act of 2017, which would provide a tax credit to employers that hire registered apprentices and support training and mentoring of new employees by more experienced workers.
Business leaders, educators, and families are making a big difference by working together and bringing apprenticeships to more people. National leaders should be doing the same.
For more information about available apprenticeship opportunities, visit https://www.dol.gov/apprenticeship.