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Published December 04, 2013, 04:18 PM

Legislators, business leaders talk worker shortage in Grand Forks meeting

Area business leaders and legislators are looking to higher education institutions to help solve a worker shortage here and across North Dakota.

By: John Hageman, Grand Forks Herald

Area business leaders and legislators are looking to higher education institutions to help solve a worker shortage here and across North Dakota.

In a meeting of about 10 businesspeople and lawmakers Wednesday morning that also touched on infrastructure funding and child care, discussion focused on solving a persistent talent shortage. The meeting was led by the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce as it prepares to develop its legislative agenda.

Much of the discussion Wednesday focused on ways to guide students into fields where they are likely to find jobs. Andy Peterson, the Chamber’s president and CEO, noted growth at Steffes Corp., a steel products manufacturer that bought a plant in Grand Forks in search of workers outside the oil fields.

“We’re not preparing people to go to school to work at Steffes,” said Wade Pearson, president of Home of Economy. “And we should be.”

Instead, Pearson said, there are too many students seeking degrees with little job opportunities after they graduate.

According to Job Service North Dakota, there were 155 production jobs and 143 installation, maintenance and repair jobs available in the local region in November.

State Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, said he’s been exploring the possibility of incentives for colleges to close the gap between the number of graduates who haven’t found work in their majors and the number of businesses looking for workers.

“It’s an alignment issue” said Bruce Gjovig, CEO of the Center for Innovation. “So the students know where the opportunities are, and the universities are responsive to where the opportunities are.”

Exploring careers

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, said a local committee will meet in two weeks that includes UND President Robert Kelley and Grand Forks City Council President Hal Gershman to discuss workforce issues.

“I would encourage your committee not to lose sight of the fact that even in the science and technology … areas of the world, people still need communication skills, they still need writing skills,” said state Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks.

Wilfahrt said business leaders don’t want to “cut out arts and sciences,” but he added four-year universities could improve in preparing students for finding jobs after college.

“Universities really need to take a look at which of these degrees really aren’t relevant,” Wilfahrt said.

Keith Lund, vice president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said events like the recent Northern Valley Career Expo can help students determine a career path. He said 87 percent of the attendees surveyed said the expo was helpful in determining their careers, 82 percent said they learned about a new career they hadn’t considered, and 75 percent said they are now more likely to pursue a career in the region.

“Part of the puzzle is helping young people have better career exploration opportunities so that they can choose things that they are passionate about and also that there is a job market for,” said Dave Molmen, CEO of Altru Health System.

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