HAMILTON – A $931,568 grant could be the beginning of something big for the Bitterroot College.

For the first time, the Hamilton-based school will have funding to establish the kind of meaningful industrial technology training programs that could open new employment doors to hundreds in the county in a hurry.

“We are simply thrilled about this development,” said Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark. “There is an opportunity for this to be a real game changer for the Bitterroot College. The funding will get these programs off the ground.”

The Montana Board of Regents last month announced a statewide $25 million U.S. Department of Labor grant focused on helping the state’s two-year colleges train today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs.

In Hamilton, the grant will open up new opportunities for students training in welding and fabrication, manufacturing, industrial electronics, industrial maintenance, energy technician, oil and gas fundamentals or obtaining a commercial driver’s license.

“These new programs are really geared toward developing job skills and making people ready for the current workplace,” Clark said. “We think they are going to be very attractive to people still trying to get employment, but struggling due to the recent recession.”

The programs won’t be on the traditional two- or four-year tracks of normal college curriculums.

“We are looking at something closer to a couple of weeks or a few months,” Clark said. “People will be able to stack some of the courses on top of each other to acquire the credentials needed to get back into the workplace.”

The hopes are the new programs will serve about 324 people over the course of the three-year grant.

When the idea for the federal grant was first circulated, Clark said officials from the Bitterroot College reached out to the local Job Service’s Patti Furniss to learn what skills are in demand right now in the workplace.

That led to talks with a number of local employers, including officials from Selway Corporation, Specified Fitting, Bitterroot Tool and Machine, Donaldson Brothers, Route 69 Trucking and Oso Railworks.

“Patti Furniss and Job Service were instrumental in getting our portion of the grant written and underway,” Clark said. “She helped us locate our partners interested in helping us to develop our curriculum.”

It will take a little time to get the new programs in place.

The grant monies will start to flow this month. Clark said the hope is to have the new staff hired by the end of the calendar year.

“We could see some programming in place as early as spring and definitely by summer,” she said. “But next fall, we will have a nice selection for people to choose from.”

The grant will allow the college to hire two full-time and two part-time staff members.

That will more than double the size of faculty at the college.

“It is one of the reasons that this helps get us on the map,” she said. “Right now we have about 30 adjunct professors, but not any full-time faculty.”

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One of the new staff members will be Scott Ralston, owner of Route 69 Trucking.

For the past 12 years, Ralston has been teaching people how to drive commercial trucks in order for them to acquire a commercial driver’s license.

“We started in March 2001,” he said. “In that time, we have trained well over 500 people who have acquired a Class A CDL in our three-week course.”

Ralston’s new affiliation with the college should open more doors for people interested in learning the skills needed to be part of one of the fastest growing jobs in the country.

“The job market for truck drivers looks good over the next 10 years,” Ralston said. “It’s projected to be one of the strongest career fields along with medical occupations. The future is very bright for truck drivers.”

At this point, it looks like Ralston will offer both a three- and 15-week course at the Bitterroot College.

“Our 15-week will be an expanded course offering 135 hours of training time,” he said. “There will be a lot of oilfield preparation included in that course.”

The demand for truck drivers is especially strong in the Bakken oil fields where Ralston said new drivers can earn as much as $80,000 a year.

“Part of this grant focuses on America striving toward energy independence,” he said. “The eastern Montana oilfields are demanding a lot of truck drivers.”

Traditionally, most of Ralston’s students tend to lean in the mid-career age ranging from 40 to 50 years old. Over the past few years, there has been large increase of younger people looking to work in the oilfields.

“I’m definitely excited to begin working the Bitterroot College and build a very successful program there,” he said. “Today, more and more people are looking to enter trade school to find a career. The economy is driving their need to go back to work and they don’t want to have to invest four or six years before doing that.”

“I think these new programs have a great deal of potential for growth,” he said. “It’s going to be great being part of that.”

Clark said the idea for these types of programs has been in the works for a long time in Hamilton.

The partnerships the Bitterroot College has already forged with other two-year colleges throughout the state will be invaluable as it moves forward, she said.

“They already have programs developed,” Clark said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’re not going to have to hire an army to figure this out.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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