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Workforce shortage: Programs seek to partner with education to solve issues

John M. Steiner / The Sun Landon Swangler, mechanic at Buffalo City Diesel in Jamestown, has worked for the company for about two years and is a graduate of North Dakota State College of Science.

With Jamestown businesses struggling to find workers due to the area’s low unemployment rate, some entities are searching for a local solution.

There are several efforts to solve Jamestown’s workforce shortage by partnering local businesses and education.

“It’s difficult to recruit workforce to our area, especially with the lack of housing,” said Holly Miller, workforce developer with Jamestown/Stutsman Development Corp.

Stutsman County had 2.2 percent unemployment as of Nov. 18, according to data from Job Service North Dakota. Many businesses are in need of employees with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, Miller said.

“If we can start the process of growing our own (workforce),” she said, “and build them toward the skills of what our community needs, we can stay vibrant and fill those technical skills.”

A way to “grow our own workforce” is to make sure local students are graduating with the skills needed to join the local workforce, she said.

ACT Work Ready

One effort toward using local education to build a local workforce is the ACT Work Ready Community program.

ACT, the nonprofit best known for college entrance exams, selected Stutsman County as one of 10 counties nationwide to participate in a pilot program, the Work Ready Community program, which certifies workers with a test called Workkeys.

The certification would show a worker’s skills, Miller said. “When an employer gets a resume, you can put anything in a resume. You can pad it. But this shows that this is where they lay with their skills.”

With Stutsman County being considered a “small county” by the program’s standards, part of the program’s goals are to have .25 percent of the current workforce certified, 15 percent of the transitioning workforce and 25 percent of the emerging workforce certified and 5 percent of employers supporting the Workkeys certificate.

Miller said she’d like to have the Workkeys exam available at public testing sites by this summer.

She’s also working with Jamestown Public Schools to get the Workkeys test implemented in the high school, so students would take the test as freshmen to see where their skills are initially. Then teachers can develop students’ skills based on their Workkeys assessment.

Students will then take the Workkeys test again as seniors and will be able to graduate with the certificate, Miller said.

Workkeys will not only be useful to graduating students in displaying their skills to future employers, but it will also help the school assess its curriculum as it pertains to workforce needs, said JPS Superintendent Robert Lech.

“It measures what we’re doing now in terms of preparing kids for college and the workforce,” he said.

JPS is still in the discussion phases of using the Workkeys program, Lech said, but is “excited about the possibility.”

Teachers in Industry

Another program in the discussion phase for Jamestown is the Teachers in Industry program out of North Dakota State University.

Teachers in Industry gives teachers college credit from NDSU for doing internships with local businesses, said Bradley Bowen, professor of record for the program at NDSU.

“In an ideal situation, the K-12 teachers would work at a local company in Jamestown,” Bowen said. Those would be companies focused on STEM skills, which are needed in the local workforce, Miller said.

The program is currently being run in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, Bowen said. There are plans to implement the program in Bismarck next summer and in Jamestown in summer 2015.

“The idea of the program is to expose teachers to what is currently going on in the industry,” Bowen said. The hope would be that those teachers could then use their hands-on, current training from their internships in the classroom, he said.

Some companies in Fargo-Moorhead that are involved in the program are Microsoft, John Deere, Bobcat and Sanford Health, Bowen said.

Eventually, Miller hopes that Teachers in Industry could be used not only in Jamestown Public Schools but also at University of Jamestown, she said.

Bowen said NDSU is piloting a higher education version of the program in Fargo next year.

Business partnerships

Some local businesses are directly partnering with colleges, and Miller said she’d like to see more of those partnerships.

For example, Buffalo City Diesel in Jamestown partners with North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, hiring students as interns and, in some cases, hiring them full time after graduation.

Buffalo City Diesel’s partnership with NDSCS started about three years ago, when a student approached owner Kevin Thoele about an internship.

Since then, Thoele said, he’s had four NDSCS students intern for him and has hired three NDSCS students full time.

“They get college credit for it, and I’m paying them,” Thoele said.

Miller said she hopes to see other local businesses start similar partnerships like Buffalo City Diesel’s.

“It’s an excellent example of recruiting diesel students from NDSCS,” Miller said.

Thoele said he’s been happy so far with the employees he’s recruited through NDSCS.

“They’re a close school,” he said. “Why not use the resources we have here.”

Similarly, there are many opportunities for local businesses to partner with University of Jamestown, said Pat Rinde, Career Center director at UJ.

The Career Center offers a consulting course in which students of all majors can partner on projects with local businesses, Rinde said. Some of these projects have included an informational video, a housing development and helping a prospective business research Jamestown.

“It’s really exciting because the projects they do are real projects that impact the community,” Rinde said.

Rinde couldn’t think of any students that had been hired as a result of the class, which has been at UJ since 2000, but she said UJ has had a similar class for business majors since the 1980s which may have resulted in jobs for students.

Why education?

Using education to help solve the local workforce shortage could benefit both businesses and schools, Miller said.

“If the schools around here can help us provide (skilled workers), and we can keep the families here and keep them going to local colleges, that’s a win for everyone,” she said.

As an educator, Lech agreed, saying that JPS wants to make every pathway to post-graduation rigorous for its students, whether they are headed to a four-year college, a two-year college or straight to the workforce.

Growing a workforce from local students could also help with employee retention, because North Dakota is already home to those students, Miller said.

In her efforts to implement the ACT Work Ready and Teachers in Industry programs and to partner local businesses with schools, Miller is working with several different entities.

“My next step, really, is to start meeting with the directors and the human resources of the companies and get a feel of what they want,” she said.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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