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When 85 people showed up for an open house to learn about programs that train skilled industrial operators, nobody was more surprised than John Cech.

The open house helped introduce prospective students to the Montana State University College of Technology's process plant technology program, and a new program that trains operators for power plants. Those interested in the programs ranged from high school students to miners who were laid off recently by Stillwater Mining Co., said Cech, dean of the COT.

Colleges often see their enrollment increase whenever the economy slows, and Cech described the surge of interest in the COT programs as a sign of the times.

During the open house, officials from Billings-area industries said the COT programs train people for jobs that pay some of the best wages in Montana. Refinery workers earn about $30 per hour on average, but the three Billings area refineries don't hire just anybody.

When the CHS Inc. Refinery in Laurel brought a new $400 million coker project on line last spring, 77 people were invited to fill out applications and take an aptitude test. Job offers were extended to 18 people, "So it's fairly competitive," said Harry Lisk, human resources manager at the Laurel refinery.

Dan Wohlgenant, operations manager at CHS, said the company has hired several graduates from the COT program, but the company hopes to hire more in the future.

Jim Hughs, program director and instructor for the plant process technology program, said about 95 percent of students who graduate from the two-year COT program are placed within their field. He said demand for skilled operators is expected to remain strong as thousands of baby boomers working for refineries and power plants reach retirement age.

The two-year programs are for an associate's degree. However, many COT graduates opt to continue their education. About 15 to 20 percent of graduates from the process plant technology program earn bachelor's degrees afterward, Hughs said.

Hughs, a chemical engineer by training, worked for ExxonMobil for 30 years before heading up the plant process technology program.

"We whet their appetites," Hughs said. "With me being an engineer, we get them interested in continuing their education."

Students say the course work is heavy on labs and hands-on learning.

"These guys are determined," Hughs said. "If you're not serious in this program you don't last. But these guys have been buckling down."

Karson Rosander, who will graduate from the program in May, is working as an auxiliary technician at the Rosebud Energy power plant that operates near the ExxonMobil refinery. He plans to continue his education after completing the program at the COT.

Internships are also available. Daniel Strecker, who completed the program in December, worked at the ExxonMobil refinery last summer. Strecker said he worked at the refinery for part of the summer, but he also learned about the industry by job shadowing.

Many students who graduate from the plant process technology program end up working for refineries. But one student, Dan Luhman, hopes to put his degree to work by developing alternative fuels such as biodiesel.

Montana's alternative fuels industry is just taking off, "But he'll do well with that," Hughs said.

The Montana Board of Regents approved the power plant technology program last March. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, the COT is also developing a program that will allow students to take courses online.

"They will still have to come into campus for some parts of the program, such as safety training. But this will help us serve more students," Hughs said.