- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Some North Dakota business leaders have repeated calls in recent days for the state’s university system to become more aggressive to help meet workforce demands that started with the oil boom. Lawmakers and higher education officials disagree on where to place their recruiting efforts.

Steve Burian, CEO of a Grand Forks-based engineering consulting firm, told an audience at the governor’s economic summit last week that there’s too much infighting in higher education and the universities should be growing at a faster rate. That came on the same day that North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said NDSU can improve its national reputation by increasing its enrollment by 3,500 students in the next five years.

Supporters of expanding the university system say the state should do more to attract out-of-state students, by lowering tuition or offering scholarships.

“We believe that we can use the university system as a magnet to recruit young people to the state to get their education,” said John Richman, president of the North Dakota State College of Science. “And in doing so, a larger percentage of them are going to start their career or continue their education in North Dakota.”

Rep. Mike Nathe of Bismarck, chairman of the House Education Committee, said it’s more important to cultivate homegrown talent. He balked at massive incentives for non-residents.

“I know myself and other legislators … that does not sit well with us,” he said. “I still think we should put more money into the students who are from North Dakota that are attending our North Dakota schools. Let’s face it, those are students that are going to have a much better chance of staying here after they graduate.”

Richman said the number of high school graduates in North Dakota has been declining for 20 years. He said projections show that those figures will turn upward between 2018 and 2025, but still not reach the peak levels of the mid-1980s.

“In a time when the workforce has never been in greater demand, when we have our lowest number of high school graduates, why do we have barriers that stop young people from coming to North Dakota to get an education?” Richman asked.

There were 17,420 open and available job openings in North Dakota last month, according to statistics compiled by Job Service North Dakota.

Bresciani, the NDSU president, said in his “state of the university” speech last week that NDSU must boost its enrollment, now at about 14,5000, to 18,000 in order to join the elite Association of American Universities. He cited a comment by Tom Shorma, CEO of a multimillion-dollar rubber manufacturing plant in Wahpeton, about recruiting students from other states.

Nathe agrees that higher education “needs to step up its game,” but indicated that Bresciani’s goal may be premature because the state should first work on ways to get current students to graduate in a timely fashion. He added that building the workforce begins with pointing high school students toward some of the technical or two-year programs that will help alleviate the state’s labor shortage.

Richman, whose two-year university stands to gain from that emphasis, said the state’s employment needs go even further.

“The state needs an entire workforce,” Richman said. “We need doctors. We need lawyers. We need dentists. We need teachers. We need welders. We need plumbers.”

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