MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A wave of senior citizens and slow growth in Minnesota’s working-age population will force the state to focus on improving education and productivity in its workforce in the coming decades, state experts told lawmakers Wednesday.

More collaboration between businesses and the public sector, especially in rural Minnesota, could help train and retain young workers to thrive in an aging state, speakers at the One Minnesota legislative conference said.

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“The aging trend that I showed you is going to happen,” state demographer Susan Brower told a gathering of about 70 lawmakers at the University of Minnesota. “The response to those trends, I think we have some control over.”

The state’s changing demographics, along with talks on greater Minnesota and transportation, dominated the one-day conference. The focus falls largely in line with Republican pledges to shift legislative attention to rural areas and an expected fight between lawmakers over how to pay for a multi-billion dollar backlog of transportation improvements.

Brower told the legislators in attendance, many of them freshmen sworn in Tuesday, that she expects the state to add about 620,000 seniors from 2010 to 2030. That would nearly double the number of seniors the state had as of 2010, according to census data.

The working-age population is projected to grow by only about 12,000 people over that same period, Brower said.

The small uptick in the pool of workers, coupled with Minnesota unemployment running well below the national average, means the state will have to increase worker productivity to grow its economy, Brower said. A better educated workforce is typically more productive.

Training could come in the form of partnerships between the public and private sectors, speaker Anne Kilzer told the group. Kilzer directs the Minnesota Workforce Council Association, which represents workforce development systems across the state.

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Kilzer highlighted a collaboration in southeast Minnesota between manufacturing and engineering company Lou-Rich and Albert Lea High School. Many of the company’s workers are approaching retirement, Kilzer said, so the school gave its students credit for apprenticeships at Lou-Rich.

Hooking students up with hometown career experience helps prevent them from leaving for the state’s major cities after graduation, Kilzer said.

Rep. Bob Loonan said the school district in his hometown of Shakopee lets some students shadow engineers at a data storage company in Bloomington. They quickly learn whether it’s a career they’d like to pursue.

The freshman Republican said he’d like to use the state’s aging population to prepare students for the workforce, by bringing retirees into classrooms to discuss what students can expect in a given field.

Wednesday’s conference was designed to give lawmakers a primer on state issues, and at times it felt like an extended college lecture. Legislators whispered back and forth, took notes and checked smartphones.

Lawmakers return to the Capitol Thursday, where both the House and Senate are expected to take up their first bills.

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