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Editorial: Career workforce academy idea offers real promise

The area's chronic shortage of workers is an impediment to economic growth of the region. Although the area's low unemployment rate is fortunate in many respects, it imposes an invisible drag on the economy. Businesses have been limited by the scarcity of workers. The problem is so bad that some employers are looking elsewhere for expansion opportunities. After flood control, solving the worker shortage has topped the priority list at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce for years.

So it's welcome news that the North Dakota State College of Science, and its partners among metro area high schools and other technical education programs, are proposing a career workforce academy, which likely would be based in Fargo or West Fargo. Backers of the initiative last week were given approval to solicit donations from employers. Authorization came from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, which oversees NDSCS. The OK to raise money did not include approval of a center.

When the time comes, that decision should be an easy yes. The proposal is widely—universally?—understood to address an important need. North Dakota, even with its comparatively sluggish economy, thanks to the slump in farm commodities and oil prices, still has about 16,000 job openings. More than a third—about 6,000—are in the Fargo area.

If fundraising goes well, John Richman, president of NDSCS and other backers can look for a location in Fargo or West Fargo. They likely will be looking for a building of about 100,000 square feet, roughly double the space of NDSCS's north Fargo campus, which opened 20 years ago.

Importantly, the career workforce academy would be a collaboration between NDSCS and at least five local high schools. It represents a promising opportunity for students who are not interested in a four-year college degree, but want training in a two-year, technical program. That's a sizeable segment of the working population. It's worth noting that 26 percent of the local population has a college degree, while 12 percent has a graduate degree.

Businesses, long starved for workers, are enthusiastically behind the idea. A survey to gauge support from more than 50 employers in the area found that all but one was willing to invest in the initiative. That's important, because they would be integral partners.

The workforce career academy would connect with students well before graduation. In North Dakota, high school sophomores can earn college credit. The idea is to put non college-bound students on the fast track to a two year technical degree. Employers literally are waiting; the vast majority of NDSCS grads have jobs waiting for them at graduation; many have their schooling paid by employers. Employers also will provide on-the-job work experience for students.

The workforce academies provide a new twist on an old idea, the apprenticeship. It's the right idea, and will help provide opportunities and strengthen the area's economy.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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