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Cali Owings, Published January 23 2014

Tech school partnerships with industry a 'win-win' for students, employers

WAHPETON, N.D. – The Monday after Kristian Scheel graduates from the John Deere diesel technician program this spring, he’ll clock in at the dealership that sponsored his education.

As part of an industry-sponsored program at the North Dakota College of Science here, Scheel, 20, of Dilworth is guaranteed a job at $22 an hour at Valley Plains Equipment in Hillsboro and tuition reimbursement.

Area technical colleges are pointing to sponsored programs as a “win-win” for students, who graduate with virtually no debt and high-paying jobs, and for employers that need workers with specialized training.

Regionally, NDSCS in Wahpeton and Minnesota State Technical and Community College in Moorhead offer programs that are backed by industry partners, mostly machinery companies. Both aim to bring the model that’s been so successful for equipment technicians to other trades.

The number of industry partners at NDSCS has doubled since 2008, said Brad Barth, director of the school’s development office.

At the highest partnership level with NDSCS, companies such as John Deere and F-M Ambulance are directly involved in recruiting students, developing curriculum, providing equipment and helping students financially.

Barth said the college would like to have an industry partner for every program it offers.

“We need someone to step up and say we’re going to recruit and get 25 students a year to keep that program full,” he said.

Minnesota State Community and Technical College is also looking to expand partnerships to other program areas such as automotive, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and construction trades, said Mark Altenburg, director of advancement for the Moorhead campus.

“We’re working to make sure we have that next generation of workforce ready to go,” Altenburg said.

Training the next generation of diesel technicians is so important that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton included more than $6.5 million in funding in his 2014 bonding recommendations to expand the school’s Technology Center on the Moorhead campus.

If the funding comes through, Altenburg said the school can increase the number of students accepted into the program.

A hands-on education

Each program is different, but all offer on-the-job training. In the case of the John Deere technician program at NDSCS, students make a commitment to different dealerships and are employees of that dealership before they step foot in the classroom.

Others, like those who are training to specialize in Caterpillar equipment, spend eight weeks in the classroom and eight weeks in the field.

Luke Olson, a first-year student in the Caterpillar technician program at NDSCS, said it’s a good educational approach for someone like him, who’s not a “big fan of book work.”

On the job, Caterpillar technicians at Butler dealerships are supervised by mentors to ensure quality of work.

“These students are learning as they go, but they’re not on their own,” said Rick Hand, coordinator and instructor for the program at NDSCS.

Five students are now working and training through the John Deere program at RDO Equipment in Breckenridge, Minn., said service manager Dan Wiertzema.

He said dealerships are providing more incentives for students to get specialized training than they did when he was a student more than two decades ago.

It’s a surefire way to make sure there’s new talent to replace aging technicians.

“We need to have more young technicians coming down the pipeline,” Wiertzema said. “That’s how we accomplish that through the program at the Science school.”

Forget 4-year degrees

Fans of the two-year sponsored programs say they have to fight against societal bias toward four-year degrees.

Two year advocates say it’s important to match students to careers and educational programs that are in demand in today’s economy.

“There are good matches that benefit the state, benefit the partner and benefit the college,” Barth said.

Altenburg said local high school graduates are expected to go North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota or Minnesota State University Moorhead.

“People just haven’t asked them, ‘Have you thought about the trades?’ ”

He said the employers are there, and it’s just a matter of convincing parents, grandparents and students that this is the way to go.

“Four semesters and you’re making good money,” Altenburg said.

While high school counselors may push four-year degrees, skilled trades are a good option for many students and bachelor’s degrees aren’t required to find a job and be successful, said Laura Kiemele, enrollment manager at M State Moorhead.

“Once they’re here and see what there is to offer, they realize that they don’t need a four-year degree to do what they need to do,” Kiemele said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599