By Shannon Furniss for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance
“I suspect there will be a lot of focus on what K-12 and higher education are doing to drive a stronger economy, especially in the tech world.”
-Bob Nystuen, President of Glacier Bank, Kalispell, and member of the Montana State Board of Regents
With Montana’s high-tech and manufacturing sector growing rapidly and increasing its footprint across the state, the Montana University System has been working to meet the needs of the sector via education, service, and research. At our recent CEO Roundtable in Kalispell, the focus was on partnerships between higher education and high tech and how these two groups might work together to address workforce needs, prepare students for the workplace, and promote economic growth in Montana.
The findings of a recent study of Montana’s high-tech industry have huge implications for higher education and businesses across the state, according to Bob Nystuen, president of Glacier Bank in Kalispell and newly appointed member of the Montana State Board of Regents.
With one foot in the business world and one foot in higher education, Nystuen sees many opportunities to “connect the dots and do what’s needed to make higher education a significant partner with high tech and make economic growth a reality.” Working together also may help solve some of the barriers to growth such as the lack of skilled workers and access to working capital, he said.
As a banker, when people talk about needing capital to expand and compete at a higher level, Nystuen’s interest is sparked. He believes there are plenty of opportunities to help. As a Regent, coming up with solutions to the shortage of skilled technical workers is “clearly in the wheelhouse of the Montana University System.”
Connecting the Dots: Re-tooling Education to Better Fit the Needs of Businesses
The Montana University System has been working on ways that the 16 higher education institutions across the state can help partner with the business community to drive economic development, Nystuen said, adding that “the list is exhaustive.”
With a huge demand for computer science graduates, campuses are concentrating on computer science programs, offering minors, bachelor’s degrees, and doctorate degrees. A “Software Factory” at Montana State University focuses on developing software in modern development environments to meet the needs of Montana companies. The University of Montana has established a Big Data initiative that brings faculty and businesses together to focus on new academic programs and research opportunities. Two certificate programs have come out of the initiative – a Cyber Security certificate from Missoula College and a Data Analytics certificate at the University of Montana.
A number of organizations that are part of the Montana University System – Techlink, the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, MilTech, and the Technology Transfer Offices – can help companies in a variety of ways, including: establishing technology partnerships with the federal government; taking a product from small production to a full-scale company; winning federal contracts; and, providing the intellectual property for startups.
The Montana University System also is retooling programs at two-year colleges in order to enhance workforce development in the manufacturing and energy industries and better meet the needs of businesses.
Flathead Valley Community College Working with Community to Improve Economic Vitality
Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell has a particularly strong alliance with local high-tech businesses, said Nystuen who has been on the board of trustees at Flathead Valley Community College since 2002 and served for the last eight years as the board chair.
According to Dr. Jane Karas, president of the Flathead Valley Community College, relationships with local area employers are critical. In fact, educators meet regularly with employers to find out about workforce needs and how they are changing over the years. The college also works with employers on designing the curriculum, getting input on what types of courses would best prepare students for the workforce. In addition, faculty participate with businesses and serve on numerous boards and advisory committees throughout the community, Karas said.
“We are always trying to figure out ways to improve economic vitality in the valley,” she said. The partnerships and community support we have in the Flathead Valley are unique. We’re all working to improve workforce and community.”
Salish Kootenai College Well-Positioned to Educate Skilled Technical Workers
With a strong information technology and computer engineering program and partnerships with NASA, the Navy, and Northop Grumman – a global aerospace and defense tech company – the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo is well-positioned to turn out skilled technical workers, according to Jay Preston, CEO at the Ronan Telephone Company and a board member at the Salish Kootenai College Foundation. In fact, some like to call it the “Indian Harvard,” he said.
During the tenure of former president of Salish Kootenai College, Joe McDonald, several important partnerships with universities and the community helped provide broadband connectivity to underserved rural areas throughout the state and develop a telemedicine network where hospitals could share information. McDonald worked to gain the support of the tribes, Preston said. Today, the Salish Kootenai College uses that network to connect to the University of Montana.
“Montana should be a place where high tech can flourish,” he said. “Telecom plays a big part. We have to be able to connect to the world in the most modern and high-speed fashion in order to really attract those industries.”
Education and High Tech Top Focus for State
Over the next few years, Regent Nystuen expects education and high tech to be front and center in Montana. “I suspect there will be a lot of focus on what K-12 and higher education are doing to drive a stronger economy, especially in the tech world.”
Key Findings of the Montana High-Tech Industry Survey,
Second Annual Survey Launched
In November 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance commissioned a survey from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research to measure the size and growth potential of the state’s high-tech sector. Published in February 2015, some of the key findings were:
1) The high-tech and manufacturing sector are outpacing other sectors of the economy, growing at a rate that is 8 to 10 times statewide growth, with averages wages at about $50,000 – twice the median income per Montana worker;
2) High-tech companies are expected to raise wages by 7 percent, add 400 new net jobs, and make at least $35 million in capital expenditures at their Montana facilities in 2015; and,
3) The barriers to growth are lack of skilled workers and access to working capital in order to fund expansion.
The Alliance launched its Second Annual High-Tech Industry Survey October 22, 2015. Please be sure to respond, so that we can continue to collect these important data.
Top photo caption: Members of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance gathered at the Kalispell CEO Roundtable held September 3rd at the home of Bob Nystuen, Glacier Bank president and Montana State Board of Regents member. CEO Roundtable participants discussed partnerships with higher education and high tech. Regent Nystuen (pictured standing) believes that the results from the Alliance’s survey on Montana’s high-tech industry will have major implications for education and businesses across the state. The survey found that the sector is growing at a rate that is 8 to 10 times the state economy, with average wages at about $50,000 – twice the median income per Montana worker.
About the Author: Shannon Furniss is a Missoula-area journalist and communications specialist. Ms. Furniss is currently the communications director at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the editor of the Montana Business Quarterly. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: The Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 240 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates. More information on the Alliance can be found at: www.MTHighTech.org.