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Guest opinion: State's economy depends on colleges of technology

Guest opinion: State's economy depends on colleges of technology

In the next 10 years, our state is facing a crisis. Many of the key people who provide the infrastructure for Montana will be retiring. Who are they? The people who keep our vehicles running, those who run our oil refineries and power plants, maintain our farm equipment, take care of us while we are in the hospital, respond to our homes during an emergency, repair our home furnaces, build our homes, and maintain our computer networks. National studies show that over the next 15 years, the United States will face a shortage of approximately 21 million workers in those kinds of important jobs. Two-thirds of the shortage will be in fields that require education beyond high school up to a two-year college degree.

The Billings, Helena and Great Falls areas won't dodge this phenomenon. As regional economic hubs, these areas must be able to supply the types of skilled workers local and regional businesses need to expand and create more good-paying jobs. Jobs that require two-year degrees already are in high demand. Shortages are being felt in Montana's health services, information technology, automotive technology, hospitality, retail, construction and manufacturing sectors. The Montana Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 1998 and 2008, jobs requiring an associate degree will increase by more than 30 percent.

HB540 invests in COTs

Across America, two-year colleges are partnering with business to develop training programs and initiatives to address business needs. But that is only part of the solution. What else can be done? A statewide investment would be a good first step. House Bill 540 presents an incredible opportunity to advance the very institutions that provide workforce training and development: our Colleges of Technology. The bill provides bonding authority so the MSU-Billings College of Technology, the University of Montana Helena College of Technology and the MSU Great Falls College of Technology can grow to meet workforce development needs. Making this investment will position all three colleges to more effectively respond to Montana's training needs.

The two-year colleges effect some of the most at-risk, financially disadvantaged and place-bound students within the state. For many of our residents, finding a way toward personal economic stability often starts with an accessible and affordable two-year program.

COTs in Montana have increased their student enrollment on average more than 50 percent in the past five years, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. The colleges in Billings, Great Falls and Helena no longer have the space or facilities to accommodate the growing workforce training demands from business and industry.

The graduates of Montana's colleges of technology command very good salaries in positions ranging from diesel and automotive technicians to licensed practical nurses, and from radiological technicians to paramedics, oil refinery operators and computer network specialists. For example, the highest paid graduate of MSU-Billings last year was a graduate of the College of Technology Process Plant Technology Program who was hired by ConocoPhillips in Billings.

The Montana Legislature has an opportunity to impact key workforce development and training in the greater Billings, Great Falls and Helena regions by supporting the bonding initiatives outlined in HB540. Best of all, the $27.5 million dollars set aside for colleges of technology is not a general fund obligation. It allows the state to use its good credit to issue bonds to pay for the work now and have it paid back over time as good-paying jobs, business expansion and tax rolls grow.

As was reported in the Board of Regents and State Board of Education joint "Shared Leadership" last November, Montana is dead last in the nation for the percentage of students enrolled in community colleges or colleges of technology. This is a critical situation because 80.5 percent of our jobs in Montana require some level of post-secondary education up to a two-year degree.

The opportunity to address this mismatch, to offer support to the business community, to provide jobs to Montanans who seek them, and to support our common prosperity is within the Legislature's grasp.

Seize it.

Workforce forum Tuesday

Work force training and development will be the topic of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce Newsmakers Forum Tuesday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Northern Hotel.

College of Technology Dean John Cech, University Regent Mike Foster; St. Vincent Healthcare CEO Michelle Hood; Arlene Parisot, director of workforce education in the Office of the Commissioner of High Education; and Associate Commissioner for Economic Development Dave Gibson are scheduled to participate in a panel discussion.

Lunch costs $15 for chamber members and $20 for nonmembers. Reservations are needed and can be made by calling Shelley Pierce, Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, at 245-4111.

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