Grunke column: Support for Missoula College’s new facility is support for Missoula’s economy

In the course of my work, I meet with numerous businesses that face employee-training challenges on the road to expanding their opportunities in Missoula. Sometimes they are existing companies that simply need a one-week course to help employees understand a new piece of technology or software. Sometimes a business is considering a move to Missoula and needs assurance that it can find a steady stream of skilled technicians.

No matter the specifics, I feel confident pointing those companies to Missoula College. With its mission to provide fast-track learning programs that shorten the time from education to career, Missoula College serves a vital role in the economic development of Missoula.

That’s why the Missoula Economic Partnership cemented an early strategic partnership with Missoula College (formerly the UM College of Technology).

And it is why Missoula Economic Partnership supports the college’s effort to secure funding for a new, $47 million facility to serve its fast-growing student body and fast-expanding curricula.

No doubt, Missoula’s working population is already skilled and educated. Thanks to the presence of The University of Montana, 25 percent of local residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 15.5 percent nationally. Our percentage of workers with a Master’s degree or higher is more than twice the national average. Add in those workers who have earned certificates and degrees from Missoula College, and our overall education index is well above the national average.

For other communities, workforce development is often a primary challenge. Here, our workforce is a central attractor.

Nonetheless, when we consider Missoula Economic Partnership’s stated goals for the future — which include helping to create 2,500 new, well-paying primary jobs and bring 25 “best-fit” companies to town by 2016 — it is clear that a workforce educated in the latest technologies and business processes is critical to our community’s economic future. As the business landscape evolves, our educational resources need to evolve as well.

What’s more, adaptability, quick responsiveness and practical, hands-on experience must be built into our education system. A company considering Missoula for a new manufacturing plant or data center doesn’t want to hear that it might get a trained workforce in a few years. That company needs to know that it will find a steady stream of qualified workers as soon as it arrives in town — and onward into the future. Missoula College’s leaders can be counted on to provide those assurances, and to back them up with results.

The school’s flexibility and can-do attitude are remarkable when one considers the challenges it currently faces. In the past decade alone, the school’s enrollment of full-time students has grown 120 percent — the highest growth rate of any two-year college in Montana. Its existing facilities, built in 1968 and expanded in 1978, were created to educate 700 students. Approximately 2,500 students now attend the school. The proposed facility would provide not only much-needed new classrooms, but also modern instructional laboratories, conference rooms and offices. All planned building elements aim to improve the learning environment and, by logical extension, the quality of graduates from the school.

The leadership at The University of Montana and Missoula College has been consistently proactive in responding to the needs of our business community, providing us with a key tool to support local economic development. Missoula College deserves our proactive support in return. By bringing its facility into the 21st century, our entire community will ultimately benefit.

This column by James Grunke, CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, originally appeared in the October 28, 2012 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

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