Fargo business leaders urge ND higher ed boss to push tech schools
FARGO -- Area business leaders expressed frustration Tuesday over a disconnect they know all too well: More and more studies show that Fargo's workforce needs are in technical fields, many of which students can't study in Fargo.
FARGO - Area business leaders expressed frustration Tuesday over a disconnect they know all too well: More and more studies show that Fargo's workforce needs are in technical fields, many of which students can't study in Fargo.
That wasn't helped in the legislative session earlier this year, when a plan to expand the North Dakota State College of Science's small satellite campus in Fargo flopped with lawmakers.
The business leaders were meeting with the state's new chancellor of higher education, Mark Hagerott, who's on a statewide listening tour to talk to legislators, business leaders and university presidents. After introductions, the conversation quickly turned to two-year schools.
Perry Lubbers, vice president of manufacturing operations at Trail King Industries in West Fargo, pointed to a study showing 85 percent of jobs in the region require two years of school or less.
"And our focus in this region is on four-year. ... All the funding that we see is going to four-year schools," Lubbers said, looking at Hagerott. "How do we get that focus on tech ed? How do we get the legislative branch to support that?"
NDSCS, the state's Wahpeton-based technical school, last year proposed a $65 million expansion of its Fargo campus, which the State Board of Higher Education planned to ask for in phases.
But the board's $10 million request was whittled down to $5 million in the governor's executive budget - $1 million for a study and $4 million for temporary fixes. That piece of the higher ed budget ultimately wasn't funded by legislators.
The satellite campus has several programs now, such as nursing, welding, information technology and business management. But local businesses crave more, and the expansion is in limbo.
"We will continue to do as much education and training of the workforce in that region as we can possibly do. However, without additional funding, those expanded programming efforts won't happen as quickly or as readily," NDSCS President John Richman said in an interview.
Unfortunately, businesses such as Moore Engineering need graduates with technical skills now.
"I think that'd be an outstanding addition," Moore's President and CEO Jeff Volk said of a larger Fargo NDSCS campus. "The problem is, we need it built today, we don't need it studied today. What we're seeing is students today want to stay closer to home."
Others lamented that parents prefer four-year schools, and they urged the chancellor to work on changing perceptions about community college.
"I had a daughter that graduated, four-year degree and got her master's in accounting, started at $45,000. I have a nephew that went to a two-year education, tech school, CNC machining, $60,000," said Tom Wollin, director of agricultural equipment at the North Dakota Trade Office. "Get that across to the parents."
True to the event's title, Hagerott spent most of the hour listening, though he did ask the group how they felt about tuition incentives for out-of-state students. Unlike many state legislators, they were all for it.
They see it was a way to address chronic worker shortages in Fargo-Moorhead, where the unemployment rate has been consistently one of the lowest in the U.S. It was 2.8 percent in June, second to only the 2.6 percent in Lincoln, Neb.
"We recognize the need to go outside, because we are having such a struggle finding people locally," said Jim Traynor, director of market development at Intelligent InSites.
No one proposed doing away with pricier out-of-state tuition rates entirely, as Richman suggested at the Board of Higher Education retreat, but they offered other ideas.
"Maybe they pay a higher out-of-state tuition, but then they get some sort of refund if they stay in the state for five years," said Teresa Warne, vice president of finance at American Crystal Sugar. "We need to recruit from outside the area, and then we need to try to get those people to stay here."