Weather Forecast


Schools scramble to help fill gap between jobs, skilled workers

Steve Varty, left, of Professional Transportation Inc., interviews Ismail Dini on Thursday during an on-site job fair at the Fargo Job Service office. (David Samson / Forum News Service )

MOORHEAD, Minn. – Tylor Kraft has a good bead on his future, and a lot of it will be spent happily poking around under the hood of a car or truck.

The automotive tech student at Minnesota State Community and Technical College here loves engines and getting his hands dirty.

It doesn’t hurt to know that being a gearhead is a lucrative occupation.

The pay can range from $60,000 to more than $100,000 a year, depending on how hard you want to work, said the 19-year-old from West Fargo, N.D.

“A lot of the kids (in his class) have taken jobs at local places,” Kraft said. “There’s quite a few people looking for workers. It’s one of those things that there can never be enough techs to fix cars.”

Mark Frenzel sees the same thing in diesel truck and tractor repair.

The M-State student works at Wallwork Truck Center and has had a couple of other job offers — and he’s just halfway through his two-year course.

The money is similar — $60,000 to $100,000 plus a year, the Glyndon, Minn., 22-year-old said.

“There’s always something to be fixed somewhere,” Frenzel said.

If there’s a common theme in Fargo-Moorhead and indeed, across North Dakota, it’s that there’s work for everyone from house framers to software writers. There are just not enough qualified workers to do it.

“The workforce issue is probably the 800-pound gorilla in the room for the F-M area,” said Jim Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

Gartin said 5,000 to 6,000 jobs are available in Cass County, N.D., and Clay County, Minn., alone.

“Those are staggering numbers. That obviously needs to be addressed if we’re going to sustain growth,” he said.

‘Find the Good Life’

To tackle the manpower shortage, the state of North Dakota and the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation are starting a public/private campaign called “Find the Good Life in North Dakota.”

The campaign starts May 14. It aims to whittle down the 20,000 to 25,000 jobs listed every week by Job Service North Dakota, said Sara Otte Coleman, director of the Tourism Division of the state Department of Commerce.

A website will answer questions about jobs, housing, education and other topics job seekers need to know, she said.

A couple of the targeted audiences include military veterans and residents in high-unemployment states.

“It’s a broad reach, technical programs and IT engineers. It’s really all over the board,” Otte Coleman said. “There’s some misconceptions that it’s all oil jobs. Most of the jobs are not in the oil areas. It’s a statewide need, among all communities.”

Gartin said Fargo-Moorhead-area high-tech firms have brought some people to the area, but they need help.

He said the nation’s immigration policy — particularly concerning people with needed skills – needs to be revamped.

“If we can’t attract the best and the brightest not just from across the street, but from across the world, you are making business operate with one hand tied behind their back,” Gartin said.

Food for thought

At Minnesota State University Moorhead, President Edna Szymanski and her deans have hosted breakfasts with industry leaders the last four years.

Each sector — health care, finance, technology, manufacturing, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and K-12 education — explains what it needs from MSUM graduates. Szymanski said her staff’s job is to listen.

As a result, MSUM has created or is working on at least 22 additional degree or certificate programs.

The school now offers majors and minors in project management, a master’s degree in accounting and finance, and a dual-degree program in physics and mechanical engineering with North Dakota State University.

There are also certificates in “Doing Business in China,” business analytics and professional ethics.

MSUM also has doubled the enrollment in its nursing program with the input gained at the sector breakfasts, Szymanski said.

She points to a state report showing that 97 percent of MSUM’s 2012 graduates were hired in a job related to their degree.

“We’re very proud of how we evolved to help our students to get jobs,” Szymanski said.

M-State representatives were added to the table this year to better coordinate teaching efforts, she said.

Anne Blackhurst is MSUM’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. She takes over the helm at MSUM in July and said she intends to continue the breakfasts.

‘A dynamic process’

NDSU President Dean Bresciani said he and his staff aggressively reach out to state and regional business leaders.

He said NDSU wants to expand its engineering and agricultural research programs and is aiming to double the number of nursing graduates.

He said there’s almost a “crisis undersupply of nurses” in North Dakota. If the Sanford Hospital now being built in southwest Fargo were open today, “there would be virtually no chance” of being able to accommodate the number of nursing positions.

Charles Peterson, dean of the College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Sciences at NDSU, said health care professionals have helped mold the curriculum for that college.

“There are such rapid changes in the health care industry, that there’s no way we could keep up” without their help, Peterson said.

The industry is also generous with resources. The Thrifty White Concept Pharmacy lab is one example, he said.

Instructor Jeanne Frenzel said it gives her students important hands-on learning with telemedicine, drug dispensing robotics and hoods for making intravenous solutions. And it’s a boost for the 85 or so graduates from the department every year.

“In our particular area, they are very much sought after,” Frenzel said. “They do very well.”

Third-year pharmacy student Daniel Broderick of Washburn, N.D., said salaries of $100,000 a year are typical in Minnesota.

K-12 cooperation

Local school districts are also revamping their curriculums to better prepare students for college, tech school or the work world.

West Fargo School District Assistant Superintendent Alan Burgad said the West Fargo, Fargo and Northern Cass districts are looking to hire a director for their Cass County Career and Technical Center.

Burgad said some programs are so expensive, they can’t be offered at all schools. The solution is to share programs. For example, Northern Cass teaches vocational agriculture, Fargo South has a strong automotive technology class, and so on.

Burgad said West Fargo is making significant changes in coursework.

Dave Gravdahl teaches introductory engineering and design students at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo.

Next year, he’ll also teach aviation classes being started in cooperation with the Fargo Jet Center.

The first year will include basic physics of flight and some unmanned aerial vehicle training. The second year will move into pilot-based and mechanics-based training, he said.

Down the hall, Holly Strand was taking a break from teaching classes in health careers.

Nearly 130 students enrolled the first year. The district will hire a second teacher to double the size of the program this fall, Strand said.

“I think it will continue to grow,” Strand said. “I don’t think it’s a field that’s going away.”

At West Fargo High School, junior Nick Carlson used a drill to fasten a backsplash on a countertop. Then he and two other students installed it on top of cabinets the class had custom made.

Their instructor, Bob Bjornson, is proud of their work. Students build two homes a year.

“There’s a lot of high demand for anything in this field,” Bjornson said, ticking off jobs such as electrician, plumber and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) specialist.

The nearby recreational engines shop is filled with motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs and a snowblower.

“The demand is big out there,” instructor Jerry Nordstrom said. “The average household has eight pieces of power equipment” with a small engine, he said.

Nordstrom’s students earn dual credit through the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, where he is an adjunct professor.

For students who decide to take the next step in their education, Nordstom said firms like John Deere, Butler Machinery and Titan Equipment have invested heavily in NDSCS to prepare the next generation to build and repair their machines.

Call me

Back at M-State, interim Dean of Academic Affairs Kelly McCalla said instructors in the diesel, auto and construction trades programs will “tell you they get dozens of calls a week” from people looking to hire trained workers.

M-State is also working to adapt its coursework. Sanford Health said it needed people trained in surgical technology, and a new program will start this fall. Operating suites are now being created, McCalla said.

Meanwhile, companies give money and material to the school to improve training and provide scholarships to attract students, McCalla said.

“All the trades are in the same situation. They’ll take every student we have and they need more,” said Alan Hughes, an electrical technology instructor.

The next two decades also will see a raft of retirements as the baby boom generation hangs up its tool belts.

“Throughout the whole industry, there’s a major shortage coming,” Hughes said.

Travis DeJong, who teaches refrigeration, air conditioning and heating at M-State, said he recently found jobs for eight students. “I probably could have hired out 40.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

(701) 241-5583