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Sun grant will help train workers, could help get $50 million contract

BILLINGS - A Silicon Valley company is stepping in to help Montana bridge the digital divide and try to land a $50 million Navy contract.

As a first step, Sun Microsystems Inc. has promised the University of Montana a matching grant in the neighborhood of $200,000 to set up a computer training center.

To land and execute a big contract like the Navy's - which involves digitizing the 70,000-page repair manual for the F/A-18 jet fighter - Montana needs workers who can program in the computer language Java and who can understand the Unix operating system. But public institutions in the state now have no way to teach these programmers.

With Sun Microsystems' help, the UM center will produce the type of skilled work force that attracts high-tech industries to Montana.

"Sun is very willing to do a matching grant to the University of Montana with the point of crossing the digital divide and bringing technology to Montana," Sun's Executive Account Manager Bob Levy said last week.

He said the amount of the grant will depend on UM's needs.

Lynn Churchill, director of UM's Information Technology Resource Center, where Sun's training center will be created, said the grant includes a computer server, 14 terminals for students to use and money to start the classes.

"Sun is already giving us a tremendous discount on the first phase for establishing the training center," Churchill says. "In addition, there is a large discount on the equipment."

"From our standpoint, a bigger donation is better than small," Levy said. "… We want to have the best and biggest impact on Montana."

Churchill says the corporation has committed to making UM one of its six initial authorized Sun education centers, or ASECs, in the world.

The Sun grant was finalized in a conference call March 30 between Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sun's Vice President of Global Education and Training Kim Jones, Levy, Churchill and George Bailey, who is an assistant vice president at UM and an information technology specialist with the Department of Commerce.

"I think it's a great first step because without the high-tech Sun Microsystems regional training center, we can't do the training that high-tech companies are going to need when they move into Montana," Bailey said.

Because Sun's commitment is a matching grant, Baucus is trying to raise between $60,000 to $70,000 in Washington, D.C., from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Services program and the Department of Commerce.

But even if the matching funds are raised, the money will only be enough to start the training program. More will be needed to sustain it.

Churchill said that regardless of funding, the computer classes will start this spring because too much is at stake.

And he says UM officials don't want to wait for the special session starting May 8 to see if the Legislature approves a funding package for economic development.

"We have companies very serious in wanting to move to Montana. Even a delay of six to eight weeks for us could mean a loss of opportunity," Churchill said. "We will begin training in any case in May. Sun is willing to work in good faith, basically to extend credit, to make this happen. So they basically are offering a loan that we will be successful in what we accomplish."

He said after the initial software training, UM will offer advanced courses in Java and Solaris, Sun's version of Unix. The center could become a regional training center, Churchill said, offering other advanced computing classes. Eventually, he said, satellite training programs may be set up at other Montana public education institutions in Billings, Great Falls, Helena, Butte as well as the Flathead Valley and Miles City community colleges and tribal colleges.

Montana is gambling that the graduates, once trained, will stay and work here.

"You're going to have a certain risk factor in training people, but we have enough interest in corporations in Montana and off-campus that we believe we can keep the graduates in Montana," he said.

Jan Falstad is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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