Missoula College brings workforce training into the right-now age
A few years ago, Brent Campbell faced a vexing challenge. Business was booming at WGM Group, the Missoula design and engineering firm where he served as CEO. Yet despite offering good wages — not to mention an office overlooking the Clark Fork River — in a city where quality middle-class jobs often attracted dozens of applications from across the country, WGM Group could not find qualified computer-aided design workers.
This was no momentary drought in the labor pool. For years, local architecture, engineering and design firms struggled to keep their CAD desks fully staffed with professionals trained in the computer technology.
“We were ending up hiring people with a four-year degree in history and teaching them ourselves to be CAD technicians,” Campbell recalled. “It was all on-the-job training. It’d take two years and then some of them would end up leaving and we would have to start over again. It was a constant challenge.”
So Campbell approached Missoula College — then known as The University of Montana College of Technology — to ask if the school could create an educational program to fill that local need.
Three years later, the college graduated its first class of students with a Certificate of Applied Science in Computer Aided Design.
That relatively quick transformation of wish into workforce might seem surprising to those unfamiliar with the workings of Missoula College. But the way Dean Barry Good sees it, that is precisely the value proposition at the school.
“That’s what we are here to do: We respond to the business community’s needs,” Good said. “In the past, nationally speaking, programs tended to be set up at schools because the educators thought they knew what business needed. But we recognize that business knows what business needs, and we are here to respond as quickly as possible to those needs.”
Indeed, when one compares a list of well-paying, available jobs in Missoula to the list of certificate and degree programs at Missoula College, the frequent similarities are striking — and not by coincidence.
“We are paying attention all the time to the types of workers that are needed in Missoula and the balance between jobs and graduates, and making adjustments that make sense,” said Kevin Brockbank, interim associate dean at the Missoula College West Campus.
“When you look at our programs, we’re not where we were five years ago and we’ll be far different five years from now as well,” he added. “That’s how we know we have to work; because that’s how the job market works.”
Not surprising given the nature of Missoula’s economy, many of the college’s graduates today are health care specialists such as radiologic technologists, certified nursing assistants and respiratory therapists. Increasingly, information technology programs at the college also focus on specific needs of the health care industry.
That focus reflects ongoing changes in the way hospitals and doctors’ offices employ technology.
“These days, there’s this whole field where the biomedical pieces are merging with the information technology pieces,” said Kevin Rosenjack, director of IT operations at Community Medical Center. “Those are new skills that are sometimes tough to find.”
During a recent panel discussion organized by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, Rosenjack said he often hires Missoula College graduates because he knows they will be prepared to perform as soon as they arrive in his department.
“These days especially, you need people who can hit the ground running with hands-on skills,” he said. “We really appreciate the talent we can get here who can get things done as soon as they walk in our doors.”
Yet despite those successes, many local businesses still fail to recognize or capitalize on the opportunities available through Missoula College, said Brigitta Miranda-Freer, director of business development for Missoula Economic Partnership.
“Not a lot of companies are able to say, ‘in two years I will need 20 workers trained in this or that particular technology, so I need to talk to Missoula College,’” she said. “Companies are usually too busy dealing with the issues directly in front of them.
“That longer-range piece is something we’re focused on at the Partnership, to get companies thinking about how they plan to grow and what they need in order to do that. We really see ourselves as an advocate for their work.”
That advocacy extends beyond the Missoula valley. Miranda-Freer said that whenever she hears from a company considering a move or expansion to Missoula, she is quick to arrange a meeting with representatives of Missoula College.
“Missoula College is at the table for every single one of our business site visits,” she said. “They are a huge part of our business case and a great strength for our community, because they can do highly targeted training and provide a steady flow of additional workforce. A lot of communities may be able to provide an initial pool of qualified workers for a certain type of business; but because of Missoula College, we can also promise a pipeline of workers down the road, and we can deliver that.”
Closer to home, Miranda-Freer often points local businesses to the college to help fulfill short-term, customized training needs — say, a one-week class to learn new enterprise software or certification on a specific piece of machinery.
According to Brockbank, such programs get to the core of a new educational philosophy for the 21st century.
“Over time, a big part of professional education will go toward stackable credentials,” he said. “We are able to jump especially fast when a company needs our help in those areas. So we see that as a big growth area for Missoula College, where we can tangibly impact the local economy in a very fast way.”
When Brockbank talks about growth areas for Missoula College, he does so with a reminder that facilities are aging and that the last building constructed in 1978 was in response to an enrollment of 700 students.
Missoula College’s current enrollment is approximately 2,500. Moreover, evolving business needs and the steady advance of technology make it ever more challenging to shoehorn new programs into the old buildings.
That’s why the school is seeking $47 million from the Montana Legislature to build a new, state-of-the-art facility.
“In order to prepare the 21st century knowledge workforce that our business community demands, we need a facility built to 21st century educational standards,” said Good, the college’s dean. “The facility is limiting us, and ultimately limiting our ability to help the business community.”
The way WGM Group’s Campbell sees it, the project is a no-brainer.
“The training at Missoula College prepares people for good jobs that help the local economy grow,” he said. “We simply cannot afford to not have this building built in our community.”