In the world of agricultural equipment, technology has become so advanced it requires highly-skilled computer programmers to operate it. But generally, high school students are not aware these types of jobs exist here, nor are they always aware of the potential to earn six-figure salaries in these high-demand fields.

It's the same with most education leaders, say people in the industry.

Students who have visited and toured his business “have no clue of what we do and how we do it,” said John Oncken, CEO and owner of True North Equipment, a Grand Forks-based John Deere dealership. Those who’ve worked with him as interns have had “their eyes opened” to the wealth of career opportunities.

To address the problem – which has contributed to workforce shortages – the 2021 North Dakota Legislature approved $70 million, a portion of federal CARES Act funding, for career and technical education, or CTE. Each community may apply for a minimum of $500,000 and a maximum of $10 million, and must match that amount with cash or in-kind contributions from the private and public sectors. The one-to-one local match may be any combination of industry contributions; donated land, buildings or equipment; or school district contributions, among others.

The Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation is rallying area leaders in education, business and industry to work together on a grant application to create a CTE workforce center that would allow students to enter a career path “more quickly and affordably,” said Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation.

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The funds, to be distributed through the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education, must be dedicated specifically for expanding or creating new physical CTE centers and may not be used for other school district purposes, said Eric Ripley, director of CTE and technology for Grand Forks Public Schools.

Grant funding will be awarded in two rounds, with $35 million awarded in each round. The deadline for the first round is Oct. 1; the deadline for the second round is Dec. 1.

It is widely expected that the amount of grant applications will exceed $70 million, Ripley said.

“We intend to be aggressive and maximize the opportunity through this great program," Lund said.

The state has released guidance for grant applications that “prioritizes multiple school districts and strong connections with industry,” Lund said, noting that the Grand Forks application will build on the school district’s CTE program, which serves the region.

The goal of the project is “to build a future workforce pipeline” that will help students become “career-ready and college-prepared,” said Becca Cruger, the EDC’s workforce development manager.

The proposed CTE workforce center will not only benefit K-12 students, but also college students and adult learners, who could be retrained in skills their employer needs or skills that open doors to a new career.

The center “will not be a 9-to-5 facility,” Cruger emphasized. It could be used by students during the day and by adult learners, receiving specialized training, or “upskilling,” in the evening.

Grand Forks' grant application would address both the physical structure and curricula. It will outline the necessary features of the new facility – including plans for classrooms and hands-on learning spaces – and the programs provided in it. The facility could be constructed or it could be an existing building that is retrofitted. Though several locations are being considered, no decisions have been made yet and those types of details will be ironed out by a subcommittee formed to study the facility aspect, Cruger said.

The EDC has formed a steering committee with representatives of the Grand Forks school district; surrounding school districts; postsecondary education, including UND, Northland Community and Technical College, and Lake Region State College; the EDC; the Chamber of Commerce; the city of Grand Forks; and industry.

It has also formed committees to work on aspects of the grant application, such as industry engagement, curriculum, facilities, governance and budget, and community engagement and marketing.

“This is a real community effort,” said Cruger. “If we didn’t have every one of these people at the table, we wouldn’t be able to have a successful outcome.”

About 20 members met for the first time July 15 to learn more and discuss application details and planning.

Lund and other leaders say this grant program represents a one-time-only opportunity, and Grand Forks likely will be competing with other communities, including Bismarck, Dickinson, Fargo, Jamestown, Mandan, Minot and Watford City.

Data analysis

The EDC received a grant from the North Dakota Department of Commerce this spring to hire Praxis Strategy Group to conduct market data research and assess industry needs and student interest.

The grant also allowed members of an EDC steering committee to visit out-of-state CTE centers to learn about their facilities, delivery models, programs and best practices. They have visited the Great Oakes CTE Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Moore Norman CTE Center in Norman, Okla. A contingent visited Sioux Falls, S.D., this week and later will visit the Moorhead CTE center in the former Sam’s Club store.

The Grand Forks Region EDC also has been working to learn, through a detailed survey, what career fields Red River and Grand Forks Central high school students are interested in, and how much they know about them. This information, based on 825 responses, will be useful in prioritizing CTE programming at the center, said Mark Schill, vice president for research, Praxis Strategy Group, who presented a summary of survey results at the July 15 meeting.

Nearly two-thirds of 107 businesses responding to the industry survey said the workforce shortage has prevented their business from growing. If there was no shortage, responses showed, nearly 1,600 jobs could be filled, Schill told the group.

Ultimately, producing a successful grant application, within the necessary timeframe, will require a great deal of work, Cruger said. "We have to hit the ground running to make this happen. (But) we’re very optimistic that we can get this done.”

Jonathan Holth, chairman of the EDC board of directors, said, “The right people are at the table. Nobody is pushing back; I think everybody agrees this must be done. With broad community support, I’m confident it can move forward quickly.”