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Michelle Kommer

Educating North Dakota's future workers: Burgum, Hagerott call for focus on workforce development

A fleet of robots flies overhead. A driverless car takes someone to the grocery store. A computer system can do a person's taxes from just a picture of a tax form.

It all sounds like another sequel to “Back to the Future,” but it’s not. Automation and easily accessible information has had a drastic effect on everyday life, and now national economists and state leaders say it’s affecting jobs.

How the workforce is educated, and reeducated, in the years to come will be key for reducing the impact of automation.

“We have to be thinking about both today and tomorrow and making sure that we are training our workforce not only for today’s jobs but also for tomorrow’s jobs,” North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said.

That means universities will have to work alongside the secondary education system, business leaders and the state to meet North Dakota’s workforce needs, according to leaders like Gov. Doug Burgum and North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott. Both have said workforce development should be a top issue in the state.

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“Our workforce shortage is the No. 1 barrier to economic growth in North Dakota,” Burgum said earlier this year during a visit from U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta.

A recent study from thinktank giant McKinsey relays the potential effects automation could have on America’s workforce in the years to come. The study estimates that about 40% of U.S. jobs are in categories that are expected to shrink between now and 2030.

The report states that by 2030 a majority of job growth may be concentrated in 25 “megacities” and their suburbs. Other areas of the country, especially rural areas, likely will see fewer jobs created. Some areas may lose jobs.

In North Dakota, cities like Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck are predicted in the study to survive and even thrive in the world of automation. Jobs may also grow in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields.

But ensuring the state’s rural areas also thrive is going to require some work, many officials said.

North Dakota is at an important crossroads as the state prepares for the automation era to begin; the only way to thrive during that time will be to work together, Hagerott said. It will require collaboration between all levels of higher education — from the technical schools to the research universities — to ensure North Dakota’s population is ready for the changes to come.

Hagerott said the State Board of Higher Education’s research committee is already a good step forward for the system and the state, as research and finding new ways to fulfill the state’s workforce needs will be of the highest priority. Further investment in research from the state Legislature will be needed as well.

“The future will be built on universities’ research and workforce adaptation,” Hagerott said.

Reaching North Dakota’s rural populations also will be important, Hagerott said. Programs like the Center for Rural Health and universities’ online programs will be “critically important” to reach the rural areas and help them succeed in the future.

Kommer said the findings of the McKinsey study were not all that surprising. Automation has been predicted to disrupt the job market for many years, but Kommer said this is the first time a study has been done to look at how those changes will affect specific geographic areas.

While rural parts of the country are more likely to be affected by automation, Kommer said North Dakota still has more jobs available than people to fill them.

“What we know from the McKinsey study and others is that we really, as a nation, have to shift to a lifelong learning way of thinking,” she said.

In July, Gov. Doug Burgum’s office announced the creation of the Emerging Digital Academy, an accelerated learning platform that will teach North Dakotans new skills to help them thrive in an economy undergoing rapid technological change. Emerging Digital Academy is designed to equip graduates with technical skills relevant in the current market, while also teaching behavioral and critical thinking skills that will aid them in successfully being part of a software development team.

“As traditional jobs are increasingly displaced by autonomous technology and artificial intelligence, it’s essential that we stay ahead of the curve by offering opportunities for workers to quickly learn new skills and fill important roles in the tech-driven economy,” Burgum said in the press release announcing the program in July. “This is a key step in our efforts to build livable communities, address unmet community needs and enhance local economic development efforts.”

Emerging Digital Academy will be open to workers statewide as part of the Grand Farm initiative, which aims to capitalize on the region’s potential in the agriculture and technology industries.

Kommer said programs like these will become even more important in the future.

“That’s the type of thinking that we need to be doing more of as time passes because all of the work is going to become more technical, regardless of the job that we’re in. That type of technology will also replace some of those jobs, necessitating the additional skills and learning for the people that get displaced,” she said.

Changing how people are educated will also have to filter down through the university system all the way through K-12, Kommer said.

Last fall, the North Dakota Workforce Development Council did its own report about North Dakota’s workforce. Middle-skill jobs, requiring education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, make up the largest part of America’s labor market. There is a national shortage of workers prepared to fill these technical careers and North Dakota is no exception, according to the report.

In North Dakota, these careers account for 60% of the labor market, and employers are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill these jobs.

A 2017 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce examined the growth patterns of middle-skill jobs. The study indicates North Dakota experienced impressive growth in “good jobs” that pay an average of $55,000 annually and a minimum of $35,000 annually.

In the past, these “good jobs” were found mainly in the energy, manufacturing, construction, and transportation industries. But now, there is a demand in other industries, including health care, finance and information technology — particularly cybersecurity positions, which are predicted to reach a workforce gap into the millions at a global level, the report stated.

The council’s report also states that how students are educated — and how they learn about future career options — will have to change.

“Today, early exposure to career options for students (and their parents) is limited, with students and parents alike generally lacking awareness of available post-secondary degree pathways beyond the four-year degree,” the report said. “In addition to inadequate exposure to the wide array of career options available in North Dakota and the pathways to achieve them, youth in North Dakota do not have sufficient opportunity for work-based learning, which accelerates success in any career.”

The council report recommended the state look at ways to connect secondary and post-secondary education, including making funding available to launch career academies. Students should also be introduced to technical education and career options at an earlier age than their senior year of high school, the report stated.