High-Wage, High-Skill, High-Demand

by Jodie DeLay

Highland College's Line Program

In Butte-Silver Bow County and beyond, businesses need skilled employees; and at the same time, members of the community are seeking good job opportunities. The gap between is often opportunity and a lack of training.

Karen VanDaveer, Interim Dean of Highlands College since 2020 has been actively exploring how to bridge that gap and how education and industry can creatively partner to provide a skilled workforce necessary for today’s economy.

line program, Montana TechTraditionally, working within higher education can take months and sometimes even years to develop formal degree programs, whereas industry moves very quickly. With the help of $750,000 from the Montana legislature during the 2021 legislative session and in anticipation of a federal infrastructure bill that may reach $3 trillion, Montana Tech and Highlands College are shaking up normal conventions and setting foundations for new paths ahead.

Brooke Samson, a long-time educator, new to the area but not to building relationships, was recently hired as the Director of Community Relations and Industry Partnerships for Highlands College. Brooke embraces a proactive approach seeking opportunities to fill industry needs with a suite of educational offerings ranging from credentials to certificates to degrees.

Samson is working closely with the Highlands Industrial Advisory Board, industry partners, and Highlands College personnel to identify collaborations that will benefit students, businesses, and the community. Highlands College and industry partners will work together to create innovative, high-skill, high-wage jobs in high-demand fields.

Highlands College of Montana Tech | acquire marketable skillsHer focus is on making this happen.

“We have a growth mindset about partnerships,” says Samson. “Growing and expanding our pool of skilled workers can work differently than it ever has.”

The key to achieving the goal, according to Vandaveer and Samson, is identifying opportunities that allow them to create partnerships with industry and the community. Highlands College has the background and infrastructure to develop curricula and offer certification and credentialing, value, and transferability options.

Industry partnerships can provide equipment and the opportunity to practice and learn in unique, specialized environments. Another avenue available is to provide short, practical courses, that introduce youth and adults to high-level skills needed for quick access into the workforce.

training in the tradesAs an example, Highlands teamed with local businesses to find a solution related to a shortage of skilled commercial drivers. As a result, the college purchased the Professional Truck Driving Institute curriculum, hired a full-time instructor, and began offering a six-week Certified Driver’s License (CDL) course in October. The impact will be immediate, will fill critical employee shortages, and meet trucking industry needs.

One of the most successful partnerships to date is Highlands College's one-semester Pre-Apprentice Lineman program. This intensive course, prepares students for high-demand careers in the installation, construction, maintenance, and repair of electrical power line systems. The Montana Utility Industry reports a need for 40-50 new apprentice positions annually. The program is an ongoing collaboration between many stakeholders including the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Northwestern Energy, the Rural Electric Association, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Montana Co-op Association, and the National Electrical Contractors Association. Since its creation the Pre-Apprentice Lineman program is in high demand and continues to grow.

Another example of this sort of symbiotic partnership is Highlands College's recent work with Sandfire Resources America. Together they are focused on the development of an innovative learning pathway for the Black Butte Copper Mine project in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. The goal is the creation of a robust training program that includes credentials, certifications, and a pathway to an AAS degree in Mining Technology and beyond. Black Butte Copper plans to employ around 240 people and the hope is that locals will be able to fill many of these positions.

Rob Scargill, CEO of Sandfire Resources America Inc., shared, “I truly believe that our people are our most valued resource and employee development is an aspect of the job I find most fulfilling. Creating this synergistic partnership with Highlands College is a first step towards delivering a workforce development program that will provide opportunities and value for our employees, our business, our community, and Montana. The power of this partnership is rewarding our employees with skills and qualifications that are transferable and recognized throughout the State.”

The training program with Sunfire will be rolled out in phases beginning with the creation of a position in early 2022 that will oversee the development and implementation of the employee training program at the Black Butte Copper Mine. Phases two and three will include the creation of the AAS in Mining Technology and BAS in Business with a Mine Management option.

VanDaveer is confident that this new approach to industry partnerships will be successful. “While past training has primarily focused on providing individuals with certificates and two-year degrees, we understand the future is dependent on skilled workers in the trades, technology, and health care arenas. We are optimistic this new focus and pivot to embrace innovation will not only provide success for Highlands College but also new career and economic opportunities for our community.”

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