A group in Devils Lake is taking a national shortage of skilled trade workers into their own hands.

Forward Devils Lake Corporation is partnering with area businesses to encourage high school seniors to stay local and recruit people from out of town to the area, calling it the 20 by 20 program.

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"We're trying to stop the bleeding of our high school youth," said Brad Barth, executive director of the Forward Devils Lake Corporation.

Barth has been working to recruit high school seniors and match them with local employers.

The Forward Devils Lake Corporation and the business with which a student is partnered will reimburse 80 percent of tuition costs, fees and room and board. Forward Devils Lake will pay 20 percent and the business will pay 60 percent.

The city's portion of the reimbursement will come from the economic development fund.

In return for the reimbursement, a student must stay with the local business for at least three years.

"Society said you had to have a four-year degree to be successful, but more and more, people are realizing you don't have to do that to find success," Barth said. "You can be pretty successful with a two-year degree, too."

Eventually, Barth said, he wants the 20 by 20 program to not only keep young people in the Devils Lake region, but also attract people from outside the area.

Older people looking to make a career change or people not from the area would be eligible for the program.

Barth said the jobs targeted come in a wide variety, including HVAC, network technicians and ultrasound technicians.

Helping local businesses

Talking a business into waiting two years for a new employee was easier than expected, Barth said. This is something businesses have to do in the current job market.

By the time students are done with their first year of technical school, they have likely already accepted a job. Some businesses are even recruiting juniors in high school, Barth said.

"It's difficult to hire a high school senior, and you're not getting them for two whole years," Barth said. "But there are natural internships and some will stay longer than three years."

North Dakota Telephone Company is one of the businesses looking for a student to hire through the program.

"There's such a bad need; this is something that we have to do," said Dave Dircks, the outgoing CEO of the company.

The company had a position open in Harvey, N.D., for more than a year.

"We just couldn't find people with the skillset we were looking for," Dircks said.

With the 20 by 20 program, a business can work with a student to determine where they go to school. They are not limited to North Dakota schools.

A way out of student loan debt

Jean Baird is a counselor at Devils Lake High School. Often, she asks students about their plans for after graduation.

One student, Baird said, planned to take a year off to work and save money so he could go to a mechanic program.

"And I told him about this program, and he was so excited," Baird said. "I've seen a lot of kids take a year off to work and then never follow through with their plan because they're not making what they thought they would."

For students, especially low-income students, this is a way to have a good-paying job lined up after graduating from high school and also a way to pay off student loan debt.

"I have seen a lot of kids in a lot of debt, and it puts life on hold," Barth said.

Devils Lake High School Principal Ryan Hanson said he thinks the program is a great opportunity for students, businesses and the community.

"I can't find the negatives to a program like this," Hanson said.

Hanson has been principal at the high school for 15 years. He said he has heard from students who are excited about the program. Hanson said it means a lot for a student to have a business that wants to invest in them.

"This is a super way for businesses to grow their own, sell their business to a potential employee and really focus on what they need from future employees," Hanson said. "Students need to know what their future could look like, and sitting in a classroom doesn't always suffice."

Growing the community

Hanson said the program is great for the community because it allows the Devils Lake region to not only keep people, but keep people who want to be in Devils Lake and the surrounding towns.

"These smaller towns, they have lost a lot of kids. Not just Devils Lake but all of these small towns around here," Barth said.

He said keeping a young person local is easier than trying to recruit someone from far away.

"They have more ties to this area, they know the culture better here. Someone from out of town, they might get homesick," Barth said.

Barth said he hopes to get 10 students in 2019 and 10 in 2020 for the program. So far, 10 have shown "serious" interest in the program but no one is officially committed, Barth said.

"I will consider that a success," Barth said. "That number of people staying would be pretty significant for the region."