Opportunities expanding for North Dakota students to explore career options

The idea is that enhancing vocational and technical programs in high schools will fill the local workforce, provide paths forward for students, and retain younger people in their local communities.

CWE - Precision Tooling Demo at Sheyenne Tooling.jpeg
Students on a cooperative work experience tour get a look a precision tooling technology at Sheyenne Tooling and Manufacturing in conjunction with an AgIII class they were enrolled in. After the tour, students completed an interview and skill weld test performed by staff at the business.
Contributed / Richard Danielson, Griggs County Central

BISMARCK — College or bust is far from the only option for North Dakota’s high school students. Across the state, students are finding career pathways in trades and technical fields, opportunities that pay surprisingly well and aren’t bogged down with school loan debt.

The idea is that enhancing vocational and technical programs in high schools will fill the local workforce, provide paths forward for students, and retain younger people in their local communities.

Derek Simonsen, superintendent of Griggs County Central Public School District in Cooperstown, spearheads an effort to retool the school’s vocational curriculum into a Career Pathways program for students from seventh grade through senior year.

“We’re kind of building the plane as we fly,” Simonsen said.

Instead of starting with middle schoolers and building up from the foundation, Simonsen said the school rolled in the upper grades from the get-go due to the intense community needs.


“We thought these kids need skills, they need to be introduced to some of these jobs and career paths, and our employers are begging for people right now,” Simonsen said.

The program would funnel students into area businesses to gain experience and potentially take up positions. Examples are welders for companies such as Sheyenne Tooling & Manufacturing, automotive repair techs at Cooper Collision, and a pipeline of nursing assistants and nurses for the soon-to-open Cooperstown Medical Center facility.

“We've realized the professional side of things is probably a bigger challenge,” Simonsen said. “A lot of these students just don't know how to be in a professional workplace or how to communicate in person because of the technology barrier, I would call it.”

The Griggs initiative is one piece of a larger puzzle to fill in the blanks in a statewide worker shortage. More focus in work-based learning programs is forthcoming.

“We're trying to create the mindset that there are alternative paths, rather than just going to the four-year degree,” said Dawn Ulmer, strategic partnerships manager at the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education.

“They can actually get job experience and sometimes choose a path that they want to take for a career,” Ulmer said. “There's so many opportunities within North Dakota right now.”

Over the past year, 30 certified work-based learning coordinators were trained to help develop the programs in communities around the state.

“I think the businesses in town really appreciate the opportunity to get kids in that will be part of the future workforce and kind of get a chance to see what they can do,” said Richard Danielson, one of two certified work-based learning coordinators at Griggs. “Especially the ones who are really short on employees.”


View from outside the soon-opening Cooperstown Medical Center and Griggs County Care Center.
Michael Standaert / North Dakota News Cooperative

Opportunities abound

North Dakota isn’t the lonely Maytag repairman in this situation. Nationally, there are as many as 500,000 jobs in construction that need to be filled, a number expected to grow as infrastructure funds flow in the next few years.

A recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) found that 30 million jobs in the U.S. pay an average of $55,000 per year without a four-year degree.

“The fact is that there are more choices, and that really opens up a variety and myriad of opportunities for a young person today to decide on what their pathway is,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist at CEW. “The challenge, and the thing we haven't done well, is to really let people know exactly what that pathway is.”

She said what’s needed is a greater focus on helping students navigate the entire career system, including trades, technical education, two- to four-year degrees and beyond.

At the Bismarck Career Academy and Technical Center, program administrators are trying to do just that. The focus is on student career development grades nine through senior year, with plans to expand down to the sixth through eighth grade levels.

“You’ve got to start them out at that age,” said program director Dale Hoerauf. “Now, that doesn't mean we stamp them on the head as a carpenter and that's what they do. What we're doing is giving them an opportunity to explore.”

Programs include applied agriculture, graphic design, cybersecurity, energy and power production, aviation, coding and carpentry and everything between.


The academy partners with the Central Region Area Career and Technical Center (CRACTC) which offers virtual and hybrid courses so that those further away from Bismarck can also access programs.

“I tell students, part of what they are doing right now is exploring different opportunities, so that they know, when they’re in high school, before they get $10,000 or $20,000 in debt (from college tuition), that it wasn’t for them,” Lyle Krueger, assistant director at CRACTC, said.

Daniel Blend, 17, a home-schooled senior from New Salem, is a prime example of that exposure through CRACTC. During his freshman year he focused on IT studies, sophomore year on coding, and junior year on computer networking as well as mechanics. Now in his senior year he’s working through STEM courses.

“I can’t really fathom the ability of a student such as myself to have these courses and classes to take in this day and age,” Blend said.

For Blend, the work side of the school-to-work experience has mainly been about exposure than actual work. These are mainly experiences gained at “hands-on days” where students interact with businesses on site.

“Businesses want to take people who have more of the hands-on training, rather than people that went to a college or university and just have the piece of paper,” Blend said.

Students experience a welding shop at one of Central Region Area Career and Technical Center's recent hands-on days.
Contributed / Central Region Area Career and Technical Center

Legislative developments

The first bill Gov. Doug Burgum signed in the 2023 legislative session provides a $68 million line of credit for the construction of 13 new career academies around the state.


Lawmakers had approved $88 million of funding for career academies in November 2021, with $68 million of that coming from the U.S. Treasury’s Coronavirus Capital Project Fund, and $20 million from the state. Disagreement over use of those federal funds has stalled their release, as well as construction of those academies, so the credit line is an attempt to push that forward.

House Bill 1019 appropriates nearly $65 million in funding for career and technical education if passed as it currently stands.

House Bill 1383, which has already passed both the House and Senate, allows for apprenticeship tax credits covering 10 percent of stipends or salaries for qualified apprentices up to five per entity.

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