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Montana News

Collaboration, Communication Key To Montana's Future Workforce

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Flickr User Alachua County
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Montana's economic success in the future hinges on the ability to adapt, collaborate and communicate.

That applies to workers, the companies that employ them and the schools that prepare workers to meet Montana's future workforce demands.

That's according to the leaders from government, private industry and education who shared what they see as the big challenges to keep the state's economy healthy yesterday at the University of Montana's conference on 21st century education.

Larry Simkins is CEO of The Washington Companies, the big, multinational conglomerate based in Missoula. He says he'd just spent a week touring some of his company's holdings -– it's copper mine in Butte, some of it's railroads, it's shipyard in Vancouver – and was asked:

"What would you consider the best college degree?

"After a week in the field," he replied, "my gut was welding."

Simkins says The Washington Companies have been working with Montana State University-Northern to create welding and other blue collar training programs.

"For selfish reasons. We desperately need mechanics, and we desperately need welders," Simkins said.

And Montana's Commissioner of Labor Pam Bucy would be really psyched to see more partnerships like the one between The Montana Companies and MSU-Northern.

"In Montana right now, we are poised to engage in some of the best collaboration that certainly I've heard about, but what I'm hearing from both my colleagues at the university system, and businesses that I'm talking to, and that's really in apprenticeship or on the job training, " Bucy said.

The academic on yesterday's panel agreed that Montana's private sector and its public schools can both benefit by working better together, and in white collar disciplines, too.

University of Montana Math Professor Leonid Kalachev says a new graduate program in statistics and applied mathematics is being paid for by private companies who use its students like consultants. The companies get analysis, and the students get real-world experience.

"The students know exactly when they misunderstand the problem, when they do not communicate right, they immediately will be slapped," Kalachev said. "The company representatives, they're tough guys. It's real life. It's not like it's everything is tender and politically correct. No, if you do not know what you're doing, they will tell you directly in your face."

Kalachev said that higher education needs to find ways to become more agile to adapt to changing workforce demands, and private sector CEO Larry Simkins said private industry needs to commit to an ongoing dialog with educators as the economy changes, too.

"All of our data three years ago said that the railroad industry was going to continue to grow," Simkins said. "There was all this momentum, everybody's training classes were full, we were stealing engineers from each other, all kinds of things were happening. And then it tailed off, and so now, all the sudden we've got too many railraod engineers, UP and Burlington Northern both laid off a whole bunch of engineers recently."

Whatever the workforce needs of the future are in Montana, state Commissioner of Labor Pam Bucy says there's a challenge beyond figuring out how to prepare people for jobs, it's who's going to fill them? She says the state is facing a labor shortage, as tens of thousands of Baby Boomers here being to retire. There simply aren't enough kids coming out of high school to take their jobs, let alone fill new jobs created by economic growth, she says.

"And where we are falling down, I think, both at the university level and in the Department of Labor, is we're just not reaching some of those underemployed people. Or, women that are only working part time, we need to get them working full time or working at higher skill levels," Bucy says.

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