Contrary to what we reported last week, the Legislature did appropriate money for the technical education centers proposed by Sen. Rich Wardner. They stripped the bonding bill of the proposed $60 million and passed $70 million for the centers in general appropriations. (And lost me in the process.)

If effectively administered, the technical education centers will mean a new day for thousands of North Dakotans – young people not interested in four-year college degrees, workers whose jobs disappeared in COVID, convicts hoping for a new start, and older-than-average students who want to join the new economy.

“Technical education” substantially means STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM fields

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More specifically, STEM involves life sciences, agricultural and environmental sciences, physical and earth sciences, architecture, engineering, computer and information sciences, math and statistics, and many health-related fields.

Writing in Governing, Carl Smith noted that “COVID-19 forced a reimagining of work and workplaces, accelerating shifts to new technology and workplace practices. Workers who lacked skills to navigate this disruption faced overwhelming obstacles, and many jobs ‘temporarily’ filled by automation will never return.”

“The need for training systems that can keep pace with rapid changes in technology, and the nature of work itself, has never been more obvious or urgent,” he observed.

Longer sessions?

Sophie Quinton, reporting on state training for Stateline, notes that some economic development specialists worry about short-term training, proposing that states should invest in programs of at least six months training for good-paying jobs in today’s economy and workforce training on a grand scale will require more federal money.

Smith quotes Rachel Lipson, director of the Harvard Project on Workforce: “The plurality of the U.S. labor force does not have a four-year college degree. We can’t throw up our hands and say that four-year colleges are the only answer.”

Lipson’s comments about four-year colleges hit a sensitive spot in North Dakota.

Status of college

First, there is an unwritten assumption that a college education creates a Tier One of society, meaning that those without college degrees are in Tier Two. Parents are defensive when they have children who would rather go for technical training than the four-year degree.

After 60 years of serving and teaching government, I have noted a number of pitfalls that could plague the development of workforce education provided in the Wardner program.

Personal politics

In previous columns, I have noted that North Dakota, being a low-population state, suffers from personal politics, meaning that decisions are sometimes made, not on the basis of what, but on the basis of whom.

Example: When I was presiding in the Senate, the appropriation bill for the 11 state universities came before the body and someone moved that the question be divided. So we methodically went through the colleges, each one squeaking through by one or two votes. The eleventh item was the University of North Dakota headed by Thomas Clifford.

It lost by one vote. The silence was loud.

Casting aside all formalities outlined in Mason’s rules, a senator from Bismarck jumped up and exclaimed: “We can’t do this to Tom.”

The vote on Item 11 was reconsidered and the appropriation for the University passed.

Location of institutes

Another pitfall will be interfacing the new technical institutes with the existing programs in the educational institutions now teaching parts of STEM. Every institution with a STEM course will want to include it’s curriculum for a piece of the pie.

Most of us know how the 1889 North Dakota Constitutional Convention doled out institutions to different communities, a political ploy that plagues us today with more institutions than we need. So if new institutes are built, where will they be located?

At any rate, the technical education program will be a boon for the state’s economy and people.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.