Local education and business leaders gathered at Missoula College on Thursday to discuss how best to instill essential trade skills in students along the path from high school to college to the workplace.
“We are trying to connect all three things,” said Donna Bakke, program manager of the Career Pathways workforce development project at Missoula College. “Today is the day we take the relationship all the way to industry.”
The meeting signified Missoula College’s new strategy of fortifying curriculums with advice from the labor force. Bakke said the effort forms Montana’s branch of the National Career Pathways Initiative to graduate career and technical college students with the tools necessary for success in the outside world.
Representatives from local companies attended the meeting, providing input on improvements to Missoula College’s flagship programs of nursing, welding and business management.
National Career Pathways director Debbie Mills told the crowd that industry must take an active role in education if they want schools to provide them with competent, skilled employees.
Mills cited a scenario where a manufacturing company needed 200 workers to complete a contract. The company approached a community college and within two weeks a class was up and running to teach the required skills.
“That’s the kind of response we need,” Mills said. “They want a specific skill set.”
Adapting curriculums to labor trends can benefit both sides.
Missoula College’s Welding Technology Program director, Mark Raymond, said recent changes in the economy have sparked a demand for additional proficiencies in the field.
“They’re looking for a more flexible employee who can do more than one type of welding,” Raymond said.
But by recognizing such dynamics, schools can keep up. Raymond said his welding program requires participants to take additional classes in business and psychology for a well-rounded prowess.
“All my students get hired,” Raymond said.
NorthWestern Energy community relations manager Vicki Judd agreed with the importance of a versatile knowledge base. She said the most successful workers should have a solid foundation in basic academic concepts.
“Everything we do requires math, even reading meters,” Judd said. “And safety is important, so they need an ability to communicate.”
While Thursday’s discussion aimed to integrate new concepts into programs, some attendants pointed out existing speed bumps in the system. Crowd members commented that students often find themselves retaking courses and failing to receive credit while transferring between state universities.
Kali Wicks of the Montana University System assured the crowd that efforts are underway to alleviate these distresses. She said institutions have incorporated a common course numbering system that makes most classes and credits transfer equally.
The meeting was the first step in a string of discussions. Bakke said she will gather initial feedback and eventually hopes to bring other schools into the exchange.
But no matter how rigorous the course work, success in the workplace may ultimately depend on individual moxie.
“It’s mostly the soft skills – like showing up on time and having patience,” Judd said. “I’m not sure if you can teach that in a class.”
Brett Berntsen is a University of Montana journalism student and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at (406) 523-5210 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.