FARGO-Education and business leaders are proposing a metro-area career workforce academy that will link secondary and post-secondary career preparation as a strategy to help ease the area's chronic shortage of workers.

The effort is spearheaded by Wahpeton-based North Dakota State College of Science, which will ask the State Board of Higher Education on Tuesday, June 27, for approval to seek private funding for the initiative, which would not involve state appropriations and would be based in Cass County.

The effort will be a collaboration involving area high schools. Backers also have been in discussion with other two-year colleges, including M-State in Moorhead, as well as area businesses. The aim is to avoid duplicating existing programs.

"We need to figure out ways to do things differently, more effectively," John Richman, NDSCS president, recently told The Forum. "No one argues that we have a workforce issue."

Richman and others involved in the effort, including the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, envision a training center of about 100,000 square feet, almost twice as large as NDSCS's north Fargo campus, which opened 20 years ago.

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If the State Board of Higher Education gives the OK, career workforce academy advocates will begin contacting employers for financial backing. A preliminary survey of about 50 employers found strong support, with all but one willing to contribute financially, Richman said.

"My customer isn't students," Richman said. "Our customer is business and industry. Our product is students."

Bernie Dardis, a partner at Indigo Signworks and member of a chamber task force, said the business community appreciates the collaborative approach, which will avoid duplication. He sees a pressing need, and likes the idea of engaging students well before high school graduation, starting with sophomores.

"The time is now," he said. "We're completely sold on it. It's much, much needed."

Also, Dardis said, "We have to offer opportunities for kids who aren't going to go to school for four years."

In Fargo-Moorhead, 26 percent of the workforce has attained a college degree, 12 percent a graduate degree, 14 percent an associate's degree and 17 percent some college.

Five area public school systems-Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead, Northern Cass and Central Cass-are involved in discussions about the initiative, Richman said.

As envisioned, the academy's integration of high school and post-secondary training will enable a quicker path to graduating from a two-year associate's degree. In North Dakota, high school sophomores can take college courses, so classes taken in high school can count toward completion of an associate's degree.

The program would stress team learning, decision-making and problem-solving skills, Richman said. "That's what the real world is asking for," he said.

If approved, the career workforce academy would be similar to programs in other cities in the region, including Bismarck and Sioux Falls, S.D.

The Bismarck Public Schools Career Academy has an enrollment of more than 1,300 students in a $13 million 98,000-square-foot building shared with Bismarck State College.

In Sioux Falls, the Career and Technical Education Academy serves 875 students from Sioux Falls and nine surrounding communities, offering 15 specialized and technical programs for students in grades 9 through 12.

No specific location has been selected for the Fargo-Moorhead career academy center.

If given approval to raise money from the private sector, it will take 12 to 14 months to gauge support. Assuming adequate support, more time would be required to assess whether any existing properties would fit the career workforce academy's needs, Richman said.

A building with about 100,000 square feet would be needed; almost twice as large as today's NDSCS north Fargo campus. It also would require space for about 800 parking spots, room for expansion, and access to public transportation, he said.

NDSCS is outgrowing its Fargo facility. "We're going to need a larger facility in the near future just to do what we're doing today," Richman said.