By Kris Bevill
Like most communities in the northern Plains, Wahpeton, N.D., is growing. The 2010 U.S. Census pegged the city’s population at 7,766. Jane Priebe, economic development director for the city, says that number is now likely to be nearly 7,900.
Wahpeton is also facing the now all-too-familiar growing pains associated with the region’s strong economy and expanding businesses — not enough workers and not enough houses. The economic development office recently conducted a survey of 17 Wahpeton businesses and found availability of skilled labor to be the top concern for all participants, followed closely by overall availability of employees and affordable housing.
But Wahpeton has a secret weapon that other communities lack — North Dakota State College of Science. Founded in 1903, NDSCS is one of the oldest public two-year colleges in the nation and its presence is felt throughout every aspect of the Wahpeton community. The school is the city’s largest employer, it is a major economic driver for the city’s engine and the various activities offered through the school — from athletics to musical performances — provide social opportunities for community members. Perhaps most importantly for businesses in the community, particularly in recent years, is the school’s ability and willingness to collaborate in the recruitment and training of in-demand workers.
“We have a long history in working very closely with the business and industry there in providing those educational opportunities and having access to that immediate workforce,” says NDSCS President John Richman.
Manufacturing is a mainstay of Wahpeton’s business sector and many of the city’s manufacturing businesses work frequently with the school, offering internships to students and serving on advisory committees to help provide the most valuable education possible to NDSCS students.
WCCO Belting, which currently employs about 200 people, has a long-running relationship with the school and has provided sponsorships and internships to its students for several decades. WCCO CEO and President Tom Shorma credits NDSCS as being one of the reasons why the company his father founded 60 years ago has been so successful, and why Wahpeton is a great place for business in general.
“Over the years, the signature traits of the type of student that attends NDSCS is one who is willing to show up for work on time and will work hard, is a person who is mechanically oriented, and is someone who really enjoys doing things versus watching others do things,” he says. “The people that NDSCS brings into the community really fit in with our business culture. As such, we have employed hundreds (if not thousands) of students who work part-time while they attended college and frequently they become full-time even after they have graduated.”
Total fall enrollment at NDSCS in 2013 was 3,168 students, one of the largest enrollment numbers in the school’s history. Prior to the final tally for this fall, college officials said they expected enrollment this year is to be at or near 2013’s number in spite of declining high school graduation numbers, a trend Richman says is expected to continue until 2018.
One factor contributing to the school’s strong enrollment numbers is a gradual overcoming of the two-year school stigma — parents and young people are beginning to realize the solid career potential for many of the skilled jobs that require two-year degrees. Larger efforts like National Manufacturing Day help to spread the word to high school students by offering tours of local manufacturing firms and educational institutions and on Oct. 22, students in the Wahpeton area will have the opportunity to participate in the second annual local tour, which will include visits to NDSCS, WCCO Belting, Bobcat and Com-Del Innovation/Heartland Precision. Shorma says WCCO employees enjoy visiting with the students and demonstrating what the company does. “We also participate in order to demonstrate to students and their parents that great careers do exist locally and that not always do they need the traditional four-year degree to get them,” he says. “Many times the students, and in many cases their parents, don’t even know what type of great career opportunities exist locally.”
Richman and Shorma represent Wahpeton in the Valley Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of industry, education officials and community representatives from communities throughout the Red River Valley. Richman, who serves on the group’s workforce subgroup, says the VPP has so far laid out what he believes are good overall objectives to set a strategic direction for continued success throughout the valley. One of the workforce group’s objectives is to encourage communities to grow their own workforce. Local businesses can help by identifying potential new workers in their industry, engaging them through part-time work as high school students and sponsoring their post-secondary education, he says. “What we’re trying to do is have a collective, collaborative approach to how we position the valley for today as well as into the future,” Richman says.
For Wahpeton, which prides itself on the tight-knit business community and forward-thinking leaders, that goal may already be met.
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