"Over the last 10 years, Gallatin County has been the fastest growing region in the state, and demand has outpaced our two-year educational offerings and other workforce training programs," said Bob Hietala, dean of Gallatin College Programs at MSU.
Last May, the MSU-Great Falls College of Technology in Bozeman was renamed Gallatin College Programs (GCP) to more accurately reflect their location and offerings. All of the courses have been, and will continue to be, taught in Bozeman.
Programs currently offered include associate degrees in aviation, interior design, design drafting and a certificate program in welding. GCP also offer courses in developmental math and developmental writing. GCP's Academic Development Center, a tutoring home for development math and writing courses, has seen a 130 percent increase in student use since it was moved to a more centralized location in Hamilton Hall, Hietala said.
Hietala noted that hundreds of students have found their niche in two-year and one-year education programs, as well as developmental educational offerings at MSU in Bozeman, and that more students will be served when GCP adds new one-year and two-year programs. GCP staff members are developing two new programs, for medical assistants and accounting assistants, to present to the Montana Board of Regents. If approved, the programs would begin in the fall of 2011 and would help meet the needs of potential students and local employers, Hietala said.
Others in the community agree that expanded offerings will bring benefits. Daryl Schliem, president and chief executive officer of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, said additional one-year and two-year educational and workforce training programs would lead to a more robust, vibrant and diversified community that offers more opportunities for both employers and employees.
"I think we would weather the economic climates better, too," Schliem said. "Diversifying would increase our ability to withstand economic downturns."
He pointed to programs in manufacturing as one possible area of expansion.
Programs for certified nursing assistants, radiology techs, lab techs and medical assistants would also be a boon in the area, said Vickie Groeneweg, vice president of patient services and chief nursing officer at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.
"Those are all areas that need a certain amount of expertise," Groeneweg said. "And, employees would enter the job market at a much higher salary than if they didn't have a degree."
Groeneweg said it's not currently difficult to fill open positions at the hospital, but if the economy rebounds, it will be.
"Having two-year programs in the community would give us a pool from which to get people for these positions," Groeneweg said. "Plus, if they have two-year training, they come with a higher skill level for us, so the quality of the work they do is higher."
A 2006 study by the MSU-Great Falls College of Technology in Bozeman confirms a need for expanded educational offerings in the area.
According to the study, a survey of area businesses showed that 70 percent of businesses that responded said they were experiencing difficulties recruiting employees with adequate skills. Of those respondents, 30 percent were unable to expand, 25 percent noted a decline in the quality of service, and 26 percent noted a decrease in productivity.
The study also noted that graduates from area high schools who opt not to enroll at a four-year university are faced with a challenging decision. They would either have to relocate or make a long commute (sometimes 1 ˝ hours or longer) to receive necessary training. As a result, many high school graduates don't pursue additional education and instead enter the work force immediately, the study found.
The demographics and current economic climate of Gallatin County may compound the challenges.
Gallatin County is the third most populated county in the state, and it has been the fastest growing region in Montana over the last 10 years, with a population increase of more than 33 percent. The statistics underscore the need for more educational opportunities, Hietala said.
And, with the recent economic downtown and rising unemployment numbers, Hietala said the need for increased educational opportunities has not only remained constant, it may be growing.
"We've found the need may even be increasing in the midst of a recession," Hietala said.
Hietala pointed to GCP's one- year welding program as just one example.
"We've been unable to keep up with demand in welding," he said. "We could definitely be serving more people if we had the resources to do so."
Anecdotally, others have said they turned to current one-year and two-year offerings at GCP to give them a leg up in the job market.
Lacey Erickson decided to enroll in GCP's interior design program with the hope that it would give her better job options after graduation. Though she had already been working as an interior designer, Erickson said she is learning the skills she needs to be more successful in the field.
"It helps the business aspect of it for me," said Erickson, 28. "Before, I knew kind of intuitively that I wanted to design. It was fun, and I was good at it. Now, since going back to school, I am learning more about the business part of it. I'm learning more than I would have had I just stayed at a job."
The City of Bozeman has also been a strong supporter of the development of additional one-year and two-year education programs, according to Brit Fontenot, economic development liaison for the City of Bozeman,
"We want to provide local people the opportunity to get trained locally, work locally, establish families here, so the brain drain for students seeking two-year college-type courses in our area ceases to be so dramatic," Fontenot said.
If given the opportunity, Schliem said that he hopes people in the community will support expanded educational offerings.
"I hope we can all approach this with open eyes. Two-year degrees could be our future. It's not always going to be four-year and master's degrees that are going to lead us into the next generation," he said.
Bob Hietala, (406) 994-5523 or firstname.lastname@example.org