Missoula College

The new Missoula College building.

There is a strong demand for certain kinds of workers in Missoula, and local educational leaders are trying hard to keep up the pace of the supply.

Officials at Missoula College have been tailoring their educational programs to fit the local industries and businesses that are struggling to find enough workers. The result is that local employers can tap into a source of talent they otherwise might not have, which gives a boost to the local economy.

“We are not doing students any service by recruiting them and encouraging them to go into programs that have minimal job placement and no need in the workforce,” said Shannon O’Brien, the dean of Missoula College. “If we’re good stewards of taxpayer dollars in public education, then we are helping match students based on their interests to our programs that have a high need in the workforce. And the goal, the ultimate goal in a robust economy, is prosperity and dinner on the table and roofs over their heads.”

Missoula College, which just built a shiny new river campus building on East Broadway, is a two-year educational facility that offers a variety of technical and vocational training in health care, business technology, industrial technology, applied computing and engineering technology, and applied arts and sciences.

In 2016, two economists with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the director of a the state’s apprenticeship program and a data analyst with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education compiled a report on labor market outcomes at Missoula College. The study found that roughly 79 percent of Missoula College graduates find employment after one year. Of those who were employed, 67 percent were working in Missoula County a year after graduation and another 7 percent were working in Ravalli County. The number of Missoula College grads working in the local area falls to 58 percent within five years, but the western portion of the state still retains a large gathering of graduates.

“The large number of graduates employed in the local area suggest that Missoula College is filling an important role in the regional economy,” said one of the study’s authors, Amy Watson, an economist for the state.

The report also found that graduates earn more than the Missoula average entry-level wage within a year after graduation and earn more than the median income within five years.

Registered nursing graduates have the best wage and employment outcomes and are in demand in the local labor market.

Watson and her co-authors found 95 percent of graduates in the registered nursing program are employed within one year and are earning more than $41,000 per year. Other medical fields also have better-than-average workforce outcomes. In layman's terms, that means they find good-paying jobs easily.

“However, because health care is both a large employer and growing at an above-average pace, Missoula College graduates are only filling 22 percent of expected demand from the health care industry in the Northwest region,” Watson said. “Health care is expected to need over 430 workers per year just to fill new positions, although some of this worker demand will require education levels higher than an associate’s degree.”

O’Brien said she uses the report to show students who are undecided on a major.

“When students are looking at what their major should be, that document helps them understand the likelihood of getting a job and the need in the workforce,” she said. “It’s a great recruitment tool and retention tool, and it shows that working hard in class will pay off because they’ll have a job because there’s a need.”

The study also helped O’Brien realize there are areas of high need that she wasn’t aware of, such as accounting technology.

“I knew nursing and culinary arts and hospitality and customer relations were high needs because of the tourism industry, but I started talking to CEOs and human resources directors about that report, and they said yes we do need payroll personnel and bookkeepers,” O’Brien recalled. “The study was very helpful in that regard.”

Missoula College also has a variety of apprenticeship programs, where students get paid to train and work at local employers such as Allegiance, a health insurance program benefits management company in Missoula that employs hundreds of people and is always looking for more workers.

“We have an emphasis on work-based learning in general,” O’Brien continued. “We’re at a point with our economy as it is, we’re well below 4 percent unemployment, so students aren’t coming to Missoula College in the traditional manner. They’re going to work. The brilliant model with Allegiance has been such a great solution to the problem. If the applicant pool works with Missoula College to do training while they’re on the job, they’re getting the work done and getting an education at the same time.”

All in all, O’Brien said the report recognizes the impact Missoula College has on the region’s economy.

“The report is both empowering and it brings on quite a sense of responsibility to continue that work,” she said. “All of the programs have a 100 percent return on investment in one year, and their earning potential after graduation is increased such that they will pay the cost of tuition within one year. So getting the word out is important to us. We’re just starting to get there, which is very exciting. We’re certainly at a point with the enrollment situation where it helps us think outside the box and make changes in a more timely matter.”

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