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Published March 25 2012

Colleges highlight in-demand fields

WAHPETON – Jared Elliot needed a career path. His hometown John Deere dealership needed technicians. The 19-year-old Galesburg native graduates from North Dakota State College of Science in May with a job that’s been waiting for him since he enrolled two years ago.

It’s the kind of round-peg, round-hole approach business and education leaders would like to see more students follow.

Faced with labor shortages in several sectors such as skilled labor and health care, North Dakota and Minnesota are taking steps to steer college students into in-demand careers.

In North Dakota, the state’s community colleges are in the midst of an advertising push that highlights programs with hot-to-trot career outcomes in fields like energy, manufacturing and health sciences.

The message: You can get a good job fast – and you don’t need to leave home to do it.

“The message we’ve delivered to our young people in North Dakota for decades has been, in order to be successful, you have to move off the farm, you have to get a baccalaureate degree, and you have to move to Minneapolis, Chicago or Denver,” said John Richman, president of NDSCS. “That’s not a bad message. To me, it’s just not the complete message.”

North Dakota has an estimated 17,000 job openings. Contrary to popular belief, only about a third of those are in the Oil Patch.

The advertising campaign, now in its third year, launched a blitz of print, television and Internet ads last month. It was timed to coincide with the state’s high school sports tournaments to reach high school students, parents and teachers.

Bob Skarphol, a state representative who helped secure the $800,000 two-year budget for the ad campaign, said it’s important to encourage young people to pursue appropriate training for jobs that exist in the state.

“It’s not serving us well to have kids spending six years in college and then taking a job that only needs a two-year degree,” said Skarphol, a Tioga Republican who heads the Interim Higher Education Committee.

He said there’s nothing wrong with four-year degrees, but he thinks four-year programs are sometimes overemphasized as the best path to a good-paying career.

Dean Bresciani, president of North Dakota State University, said his institution plays its own key role in workforce development. It may not be shoring up the state’s shortage of plumbers and electricians, but it’s developing tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and problem-solvers, he said.

“If you talk to business leaders, they will tell you they absolutely want students graduating with a broad liberal arts background,” he said. Some programs work with industry partners to tweak and update their offerings, but the school doesn’t constantly update its programs to fit the needs of the market like a technical school might.

“That’s the beauty and value of a broad-based postsecondary system,” he said.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System announced last week a new plan to identify the state’s workforce needs and align its programs accordingly.

Diane Wolter, a career development specialist at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said it’s a good step toward addressing a disconnect between colleges and employers.

“There is a perception among some faculty that it’s not necessarily their job to anticipate the needs of employers,” she said. “In higher education for years, that’s just not where the conversation has been.”

Wolter also said students don’t always have clear-headed ideas about how their chosen fields fit into the workforce.

“We talk with students about what is not only a suitable direction for them, but what is a realistic direction,” she said.

Wolter said the issue of alignment has gained prominence in recent years amid falling state budgets and a rising clamor for accountability in public entities like colleges.

“More and more people are starting to ask, ‘What are students really getting out of their education? What is the return on investment here?’ ” she said.

That doesn’t mean colleges should start funneling students into specific programs to fill out the workforce, she said. In fact, with the exception of a few skill-specific industries like accounting, most employers tell her an entry-level employee’s major doesn’t really matter.

Instead, she said, it’s important for students to develop marketable skills, and then sell those skills effectively.

“It’s all about fit in both directions,” she said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502