Billings Gazette

Gazette opinion: Let's move ahead quickly with 2-year college mission

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 12:00 am

The expanded welding program at Montana State University Billings College of Technology received Board of Regents approval last week to continue its successful operations. That approval was required because welding was ramped up on a fast track two years ago to meet industry need for skilled workers.

That response from the Billings COT was crucial; the affirmation from the Regents is critical. But the Montana University System must further step up its work with employers and speed up its fast tracks to educate Montanans for high-demand jobs.

In a presentation to Regents at their meeting in Bozeman last week, John Cech, deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education, talked about strategies for achieving the board's goal to increase responsiveness to work force development needs.

"Work force development and education should be centerpieces of any strategy for community improvement," Cech said, quoting economist Larry Swanson of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Cech further cited Swanson's views that work force development must be:

Cech said next steps include engaging industry and convening education partners, including Montana higher education, K-12 schools and apprenticeships. He said recommendations should be presented to the Regents by March.

Sheila Stearns, commissioner of higher education, announced at the Regents meeting that she is forming a task force to respond quickly to rapidly expanding demand for workers in the Bakken oil and gas play in Eastern Montana. Cech and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado will co-chair that task force.

The university system will hold a retreat in Bozeman Dec. 15-16 to plan for the implementing a more comprehensive mission at all the system's two-year colleges and programs, including the Billings COT. Representatives of business, industry and K-12 school districts will participate in this retreat with the universities, Cech told The Gazette.

One of the tasks of the retreat will be to address "rebranding" the COTs, including changing their names from COT. However, as Cech and other educators involved in this process understand, a name change must reflect real change.

Montana's public two-year colleges are valuable but under-utilized resources. They can do much more for Montanans who need to train immediately for jobs, for employers who need skilled workers and for adult students of all ages who need a smaller, more affordable, more accessible setting to start on a four-year degree or to gain skills they missed in high school.

The MUS mission statement for two-year education is "to provide a comprehensive, accessible, responsive, student-centered learning environment that facilitates and supports the achievement of individuals' professional and personal goals, and enhances the development of Montana's citizens, communities and economy."

Now's the time to translate that mission into action. The first steps are good, but Montana has a long way to go.