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Three western Montana colleges will split $5.3 million to help grow the region’s pool of skilled workers, filling a shortage of employees in several technical fields while preparing others for tomorrow’s jobs.

The pot of money – a portion of nearly $25 million awarded to Montana by the U.S. Department of Labor – came as welcome news when it was announced last month by the state Board of Regents.

“Congress allocated $2 billion for this initiative, to be spread out over a four-year period,” said John Cech, deputy commissioner of two-year and community college education in Montana. “The goal of this grant is to move 10,000 Montanans from underemployed to high-paying jobs in energy, oil and gas, and advanced manufacturing.”

The state invited all two-year schools and tribal colleges in Montana to participate in the program. Thirteen jumped on board and the state – working with college deans and chief executives – secured the participation of 57 business and industrial partners.

“They made a commitment to be involved with curriculum design and they’ll be involved when we roll this out over the next four years to serve the needs of the region,” Cech said. “The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center out of Montana State University will help make connections with both large and small manufacturing firms around the state.”

In western Montana, Bitterroot College will receive $931,568 while Flathead Valley Community College will receive $3.4 million. Missoula College was awarded $1.4 million to build and consolidate a number of programs aimed at getting students into the workforce.

Among them, Missoula College Dean Barry Good named a new welding program condensed to 12 weeks, a more robust Commercial Drivers License (CDL) program using new tractor-trailers and a stronger partnership with the Missoula Job Service.

“We’ll be looking at ways of bridging two-year education with the public workforce system,” Good said. “It’s a tremendous boost for several of our programs, and it’s a tremendous boost to start partnering more and more with the community, and starting to do workforce development.”

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The grant also will help all two-year schools in the program prepare students for college-level mathematics. Known as the Emporium Model, the program was launched 11 years ago by Virginia Tech and has proved effective in bolstering student preparedness while driving down instructional costs.

“This is for students who aren’t yet prepared for college-level work,” Good said. “It will allow us to develop a new model on how to deliver math. It’s being used at other schools in other parts of the country, and it has proven to be effective.”

Cech said the challenge of moving learners as quickly as possible to college-level math and writing is one that reaches across the state. The federal grant included several million dollars to help students earn their rudimentary math skills in as short a time as possible.

“With many of these technical credentials in areas of energy and manufacturing, there’s a math foundation needed to help students move forward,” Cech said. “This grant will help us carry out some of the recommendations we presented to regents last May to improve our fundamental education in math.”

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Brad Eldredge, director of institutional research at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, said the funding will help his school create new programs and enhance existing efforts.

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Welding and advanced manufacturing are first among them.

“We have a welding program now, but it’s focused on getting students a welding certificate,” said Eldredge. “There’s a need in our community for welding fabricators, so this will help us get the equipment, and that will be helpful.”

Eldredge said that a year ago, FVCC received an individual grant to get started in advanced manufacturing. The program is up and running and the new influx of funding will enable the school to hire more faculty.

That particular program, Eldredge said, is one FVCC will share across the state. He said most two-year schools in Montana are known for a field of excellence. In Helena and Havre, it’s diesel technology. At Flathead, he said, it’s advanced manufacturing.

“That’s one of the nice things about this grant – it will allow all the colleges that are centers of excellence to share their curriculum across the state,” Eldredge said. “We’ll create a new fabrication lab as well that will be incorporated into the manufacturing program, and also be open to local entrepreneurs.”

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Gov. Steve Bullock and the Board of Regents have billed the $25 million grant as a potential economic driver – a way of meeting the workforce needs of business and energy while equipping students to compete in a 21st century workforce.

Cech, like Bullock, believes that Montana’s two-year schools play a crucial role in giving students the skills and experience required to meet the needs of employers looking to do business in the state.

“Any time a state can present to business and industry looking to locate or letting contracts in Montana – and you can present you have a network of higher education institutions and comprehensive two-year colleges ready and willing to respond to workforce training needs – it puts the state in a good light,” Cech said.

The workforce needs vary across the state. In eastern Montana, Cech said, the energy boom is driving a demand for workers – oil and gas development as it relates to new fracking technology and coal development.

In central Montana, including Billings, the need for welders and manufacturers is high. Cech said ExxonMobil has stepped forward as a major corporate partner in that region.

In Helena, the need for workers is now tied to aircraft manufacturing, Cech said, and in Great Falls, welding also is in demand.

“We have huge welding shortages in the state right now,” Cech said. “There’s a Canadian firm building a new manufacturing facility in Great Falls needing to hire 750 trained welders over the next five years.”

In western Montana, Cech said the needs are similar, with Flathead Valley Community College looking to take the lead in advanced manufacturing. The needs in Missoula range from welders to Internet technology skills. Sectors of the city’s economy are looking to grow existing tech firms, if not lure new ones to town.

“When we did a lot of our research, we talked to the folks in the greater Missoula area who said they’re having a hard time competing against the workforce in the Bakken,” Cech said. “Any time you can help 10,000 people at minimum wage or low-level jobs move into good-paying jobs, it’ll have an impact on the economy and the competitiveness of many industries in state.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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