DICKINSON, N.D.-Four-year degrees are not all they are cracked up to be in North Dakota.

There are currently 14,000 job openings across the state and about 70 percent of them are related to career and technical education-high-skilled, post-secondary education requiring less time than a bachelor's degree, said Rick Ross, the executive director for the North Dakota Association for Career and Technical Education.

Three big industries in the state are agriculture, energy and technology, with the technological field growing, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and all require career and technical education (CTE) or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM-related education.

There needs to be more of an emphasis put on these two-year degrees and vocational training to fill these roles and boost the state and national economy, the senator said.

"Those are the skillsets that will provide real good career opportunities," Hoeven said. "There's a real demand for people with both skillsets. You look at the jobs, the good paying jobs, both here in North Dakota and nationally the CTE and the STEM ... training is very much in demand for the job openings that we have as our economy continues to get more technologically advanced."

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One way of doing this is to spread awareness to students about all the career and educational opportunities available, something Toril Sanford, the school counselor at Heart River Elementary, is trying to do at an early age.

Sanford organized this year's career fair at her elementary school and invited a local veterinarian, the DIckinson State University football coach, nurses, a lab technician, locksmiths, a park ranger, a cameraman and representatives from MBI Energy Services, among others, to come speak to the students.

"I wanted them to be exposed to a lot of different things, a lot of things that they can dream about," she said. "I tried to have a mix of things where they could do like technical schools, but then also college jobs so that it applies to all the students rather than just the ones that will go the college route."

While nationally a bachelor's degree is pushed more heavily, she said North Dakota is a state with more energy-related and agricultural jobs, making it important to show students that there are jobs available that do not require four additional years of school, she said. Hands-on technical schooling or apprenticeships appeal to different learning styles as well.

It is also important to make sure parents are aware of these opportunities, Hoeven said. Students can earn high-paying jobs without needing to spend as much on post-secondary education. He has been working on ways to spread this awareness, as well as to increase the access to these degrees and opportunities.

Government's role

At the federal level, there is bipartisan support for CTE and STEM programs, with little opposition. The main problem is finding the funding for them amidst all the other demands on the federal budget.

Hoeven and Sen. Amy Klobucha, D-Minn., included the Innovate America Act within the Every Student Succeeds Reauthorization Act (ESSA). The Innovate America Act provides more funding for STEM and gives schools the flexibility to use the funds in whatever way most benefits the school district, he said.

ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and now allows 3 percent of the allocated funds to be used for CTE funding. Additionally it changed the language surrounding "well-rounded education" to include CTE, said Jarrod Nagurka, advocacy and public affairs manager for the association for career and technical education.

The House also recently passed the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, the major federal legislation that provides funding for states for CTE programs. Hoeven said he thought the Senate would pass it as well.

"Congress has traditionally done a really good job of working together in a bipartisan way on Perkins and on CTE in general," Nagurka said. "We saw that in the House of Representatives when they passed the Perkins Reauthorization 405 to 5."

Ross and Nagurka recently took a tour around the state, visiting 11 different spots to discuss the importance of STEM and CTE programs. Ross said stakeholders in the school, community and businesses all were very supportive of CTE.

He worries the Gov. Jack Dalrymple's 90 percent budget request will only further harm CTE programs. Departments across the state had to cut their budgets by 6.55 percent already and the additional 3.45 percent is concerning, he said. CTE is not currently protected as part of the core curriculum, which has protections from some of these cuts.

With the state in an economic slowdown, but with rising oil prices suggesting the economy will start growing again, the workforce will need to be able to fill the new jobs created as a result, Ross said.

Now is the time to start planning ahead.

"I worry that our ability to meet the business needs and to change our program to fit the business needs is not going to happen because it's quite expensive to do that," Ross said.

Future of CTE

Some small schools have difficulty affording expensive equipment needed for these classes and the personnel to teach them-particularly if only a handful of students are interested in taking the class.

Another concern with CTE is the lack of teachers to educate students in these fields. North Dakota teachers tend to stay in North Dakota longer, so Ross said more of an emphasis needs to be put on educating teachers. In fact, teachers do not need a bachelor's degree to teach in North Dakota, but rather an associate's degree in applied science and 4,000 work hours in order to qualify.

Americans ages 18 to 34 are the most educated in generations but the percentage of young people with a job is lower than ever, Nagurka said.

The high school graduation rate for CTE students is significantly higher than non-CTE students, and by 2020 there will be 22 million job openings related to CTE. About half of all STEM jobs require workers with less than a bachelor's degree.

Other states have done a cost-benefit analysis on CTE investment, Nagurka said. Washington found that for every $1 invested into CTE, there was $9 in revenue and economic benefits while Wisconsin yielded $12 in outputs and Connecticut produced $16.

"North Dakota is the only state in the U.S. where your entire congressional delegation are members of the CTE Caucus, so you have some strong supporters here in North Dakota," Nagurka said.