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HELENA – The Gianforte Family Foundation announced on Thursday $500,000 worth of scholarships for students who enroll in manufacturing and energy industry programs at two-year colleges in Montana.

Scholarships will be available to students at Helena College and 12 other two-year colleges around the state starting in the spring 2015 semester.

“We need more high-wage jobs in Montana, and manufacturing creates high-wage jobs,” Greg Gianforte said.

Gianforte said he’s heard from industry leaders that the manufacturing sector is constrained by a lack of skilled workers. He said this scholarship is about creating opportunities for Montana students to receive training to meet those demands.

Administered by the Student Assistance Foundation, scholarships will be awarded on a competitive basis. Student eligibility will depend on need, veteran status, employment opportunities, education and career goals and other parameters, said John Cech, deputy commissioner of higher education for two-year and community college education.

Scholarships will cover up to 50 percent of tuition with a priority on assisting lower-income and veteran students, a press release about the scholarships stated. A total $125,000 worth of scholarships will be distributed each semester for four consecutive semesters.

In 2013, Montana received a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for advanced manufacturing and workforce development. That four-year grant provides training for advanced manufacturing, curriculum development and professional-grade equipment, Cech said.

“The missing piece in the grant has been funding for students to access these state-of-the-art programs, and now we have that,” Cech said.

Thomas Spika, owner of a Lewistown-based manufacturing company and chairman of the Montana Manufacturing Council, said he is excited about the potential the scholarships will provide.

“We’re finding it more and more difficult to secure the workforce we need,” Spika said.

He said he also believes in the vision Gianforte has that two-year degrees can create a strong workforce. Four-year degrees are not the only avenue for a solid future, Spika said. 

“If we want to grow our economy, we need to look at what has the best potential, and to me manufacturing has that potential,” Spika said.

Daniel Bingham, dean of Helena College, said one of the biggest challenges students face is meeting the cost of tuition and still being able to afford food and rent.

“This will remove many of those barriers,” he said.

Dalton Hildenstab is a Helena College student who is on track to graduate in Spring 2015. Hildenstab said he doesn’t come from a wealthy family able to pay for a four-year degree, but the two-year program has been a “great privilege.”

After graduating, Hildenstab said, he wants to pursue a career in manufacturing and eventually start his own company.

Thomas Spika said it’s helping students get the training they need in promising fields that makes a difference.

“This is what grows an economy, we’re planting seeds here,” Spika said.

“I would hope this may be the first of many opportunities like this in the state,” he added.

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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