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Andy Peterson, Published August 10 2013

Letter: Promising partnership takes shape

It’s time for the business community to step up as leaders in strengthening North Dakota’s higher education system.

A top recommendation of the recent 2020 and Beyond Initiative was that North Dakota become the No. 1 state in education. We have made progress in K-12 education funding, and it’s time to focus on higher education.

Higher education is a key component in North Dakota’s success. With the continued expansion of North Dakota’s economy and population, the state needs a skilled workforce well into the future. Colleges and universities must be economic drivers, and this requires North Dakota’s education system to equip students with the knowledge, skills and creativity needed to fuel future success.

Businesses looking for a well-trained workforce must help students identify paths to future careers, train workers and prepare people for entrepreneurial pursuits. To do this, businesses need a stronger voice in developing higher education programming that fits workforce demands. At the same time, North Dakota’s education system needs to transform with a greater focus on scholarships, school funding, career guidance, and curriculum that supports the state’s business needs. This means the two groups that benefit the most from higher education – employers and students – need to join the conversation as thought leaders.

Higher education has bright spots. Businesses are absorbing students as fast as they can graduate, especially in programs such as geology and petroleum engineering. In addition, the 2013 Legislature established a funding formula based on credit hours completed, allocated $1.5 million for the state’s Operation Intern program, and provided more than $2 million for STEM-related programs.

However, negative attention in recent years has not been helpful. Former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s denigration of higher education in North Dakota without any consensual suggestions for alternatives or improvements has left some with negative views of the system. The business community needs to step up and lead the process to bring about positive change.

To address this, the Chamber and its members will call together the presidents of the state’s colleges and universities. We will listen to their perspectives on how to strengthen higher education. We will share with them our ideas on how to prepare students to be a strong workforce.

North Dakota’s education system should be working at all levels to develop the workforce of tomorrow. It must begin with quality academic training in K-12 that delivers well-prepared students into higher education. Once there, students need a higher education system that emphasizes research and development and teaches science, technology, engineering, and math skills to support the state’s economic growth.

Good things are happening here, and our growing industries will need more and more workers. Now is the time to strengthen the connection between higher education and business.

Peterson is president/CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber.