2-year training programs could bolster area workforce

Before Baby Boomers begin retiring en masse from Montana’s work force, area business leaders are taking steps to avoid a shortage of trained workers.

of the Gazette Staff

The group is emphasizing two-year vocational programs to train workers faster for a rapidly changing work world.

With the headline-grabbing Billings school strike in mind, Michael Gulledge, chairman of the Greater Yellowstone Business and Education Council, told a breakfast meeting at Montana State University-Billings Wednesday that the area needs a quicker turnaround of skilled workers.

"Now more than ever we should be meeting to discuss education," said Gulledge, publisher of The Billings Gazette and an organizer of the Celebrate Billings effort.

Wednesday was the second meeting of the Business and Education Council, which formed in May. Nearly 70 business leaders have worked to identify six area industries most in need of more help from the post-secondary education system.

The areas were agriculture, health care, energy and natural resource extraction, government nonprofit and education, financial services and the service sector including tourism.

Montana has one of the top high school graduation rates in the country and last fall eight out of 10 post-secondary education students were enrolled in four-year degree programs. However, unlike many states, relatively few Montana students go for two-year degrees. Less than one-half of 1 percent of Yellowstone County’s residents are enrolled in two-year programs.

In Billings, 600 students attend the College of Technology and 3,900 are pursuing four-year degrees at Montana State University-Billings.

By comparison, one out of every 10 people in Portland attend the Portland Community College, which offers two-year degrees.

"We must make sure what we offer is what business and industry wants, that they are partners," said MSU College of Technology Dean John Cech.

The moderator for Wednesday’s meeting was Leo Presley of Stillwater, Okla., who specializes in leadership training and organizational management. Presley helped participants identify the area’s greatest needs.

First Interstate BancSystems chief executive Tom Scott said the financial services industry wants a skilled and stable workforce. He said his business spends six months training entry-level workers, then often loses them. He also said many workers lack some basic skills.

"Things like thanking people. Those skills you think would be taught at home or in the schools, but they aren’t," Scott said.

After participants identified the industries most in need of a better educated workforce, they were asked to name the top three challenges each of these industries face in getting the best educational bang-for-the-buck.

St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation executive director Dave Irion said the health care industry needs to stay on top of the fast advances in medical care and find workers trained to handle those changes.

Critical thinking skills and even showing up for work were concerns of other business leaders.

MSU-Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton said he believes there is a mismatch in Montana with only a small number of students heading for two-year degrees. More knowledge about the jobs requiring less training than a college degree would help keep workers closer to home, he said.

"I believe they would stay if they understood that there were good-paying jobs and opportunities for a different level of preparation to enter the work force," Sexton said.

In Montana, budget problems have levied a 20 percent tuition increase on students this year, on top of a similar hike last year, Sexton said. He expects further levies when Gov. Judy Martz releases her budget Friday.

The Council’s Steering Committee consists of Gulledge, Cech, Bruce Whittenberg, Rae Olson, Joe McClure and Sharon Peterson.

During Tuesday’s meeting, five more people were added to the "stakeholder alliance" committee including First Interstate’s Scott, St. Vincent’s Irion, ConocoPhillips manager Jay Churchill, MSU-Billings provost Janie Park, Yellowstone County extension agent Paul Dixon and Travel Cafe owner Billie Ruff.

The council’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 6 at The Gazette.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.