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Mayors, educators talk workforce, infrastructure at State of the Cities Address

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Educators outlined the importance of graduates prepared to step into the workforce, and the mayors of Bismarck and Mandan highlighted the need for infrastructure funding during the annual State of the Cities Address on Nov. 3.

Three college presidents stressed not only the need for properly educated and trained graduates but the importance of keeping graduates in North Dakota. The development and acquisition of talented workers will be a major challenge in coming years, according to Bismarck State College President Doug Jensen.

Other factors in the business world remain strong, he said, and a focus on qualified workers for high-priority, high-demand occupations will be an “economic differentiator” that will help to attract and grow businesses, he said.

“It needs to become strategic in our planning to make sure we don’t overlook it,” Jensen said.

The role of United Tribes Technical College has changed since its early days, according to President Leander McDonald. The school started as a training ground to fill entry-level positions, and though it is now accredited it’s still important to work from that foundation and provide graduates with solid skills, he said.

“When they get finished with us, they need to be able to have a job,” McDonald said.

The colleges have more than simply a role in workforce development -- “Our institutions have a moral obligation for workforce development,” University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea said.

Producing a greater number of workers is only part of the equation -- the quality must continually increase, Shea said, and it would be easy during a worker shortage to just fill positions. It’s important to prepare people who are culturally ready for the workplace and are ready to lead, because not doing so short-shrifts the employers who look to the schools for employees, he said.

Keeping graduates in North Dakota is another challenge. U-Mary offers an accelerated degree program under which students study through summer sessions. That gives them a chance to see the Bismarck-Mandan area at its best, Shea said.

“In the whole world, nobody does June better than us,” he said.

Mayors

Mandan’s population and business foundation continue to grow, according to Mayor Tim Helbling.

A recent survey showed the city's residents want leaders to take a proactive approach toward new development, he said. Commercial growth outside of downtown Mandan holds great potential but commercial property is in short supply.

“Our future is to the west,” the mayor said.

Development west of Mandan and south of Interstate 94 will take public money and “a very courageous commission,” Helbling said. “Our opportunities are endless for the next 25 to 50 years, but we’ve got to get west."

The 2020 census showed Mandan’s population grew to 24,206, an increase of 32% since 2010, Helbling said. The year 2020 was marked by several business expansions, and the city is moving forward with a water intake project, recertification of the Lower Heart River levee, and library, park and roadway enhancements. Memorial Highway, better known as the Strip, will be improved in three phases from 2022 to 2024. Voters have approved two new schools, and a $750,000 donation will help give the Mandan rodeo grounds a permanent home.

Bismarck too is seeing added businesses, downtown pavement upgrades and several new residential projects, Mayor Steve Bakken said. Both mayors encouraged residents to reach out to legislators to address funding for local infrastructure needs.

“It can’t all go to Williston, Dickinson and Fargo. It seems like we keep pumping money to Fargo, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, yet we can’t get it in our community,” Helbling said. “Let’s get some of that money back home.”

Bakken further encouraged Bismarck residents to be more engaged in their community and its projects, such as Together 2045, a comprehensive plan to guide the growth of the community.

“The more people that we get involved with the process, the better off we are as a community,” he said.

The event was hosted by the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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