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At a press conference on Tuesday at the University of Mary, Brian Opp spoke about the the school's new Workforce Development Initiative, which is charged with cultivating relationships between higher education and business leaders. Opp will oversee the program. 

Last year, Dakota Access Pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners donated $5 million to the University of Mary for an engineering school and to establish a workforce development program.

The donation is the largest the university has ever received for a capital project — $3 million of which was earmarked for the soon-to-be-built School of Engineering and $2 million for a workforce development program.

At a press conference on Tuesday, university officials announced plans for the $2 million donation: to reach out to employers in North Dakota to determine workforce development needs then create new education and training programs.

U-Mary President Monsignor James Shea said Tuesday that the university has an obligation to create programming to respond to workforce challenges in the state, including recruiting and retaining employees. He said this aligns with what Gov. Doug Burgum has identified as a No. 1 need in North Dakota.

"As we hear the clarion call of the governor around workforce development, we know that (the university) can assist with that great effort," Shea said.

Chris Curia, executive vice president of human resources for Energy Transfer Partners, said Tuesday that ETP, when building the Dakota Access Pipeline, pledged to help the communities "where we do business."

"We continue to face some legal challenges with the pipeline, but we believe the pipeline was the right decision. It was the right decision for the state of North Dakota, it was the right for Energy Transfer partners" as well as oil producers and the United States as a whole, Curia said.

Recruiting and retaining is a huge challenge for many companies, which is why ETP decided to donate to the university, according to Curia.

"We feel that the University of Mary is the right institution to lead this effort, and we're very confident that our funds are going to be spent wisely," he said.

With the funding, the university established a workforce development team, which is composed of three employees, including Brian Opp, a workforce development strategist. Opp said Tuesday that, with the assistance of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the team has reached out to employers across North Dakota to discover workforce development needs.

After meeting with employers in the state, the university will produce a report it will share with all higher education institutions in North Dakota.

"The point is higher education needs to know where and how we can help," Opp said.

Once the report is completed, the university will determine which education and training programs to develop.

"We fully expect to develop new programming engaging new subject matter experts and tailoring that programming to meet the needs of North Dakota employers, regardless of the industry, regardless of the location," he said, adding that this could mean one-day workshops or multi-year degree programs.

The workforce development needs report is expected to be finalized in April or May.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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