Bemidji Pioneer: NTC hosts high school counselors conference

BEMIDJI — More than 75 percent of of Bemidji-area employers said they couldn’t find qualified candidates to fill their open jobs and 46 percent said they’ve posted openings that sometimes receive no applicants, according to a 2016 Neilson Foundation survey.

That’s one symptom of a broader “skills gap” that’s meant a strong demand for technical college graduates.

Sarah Martinka, a general manager at Bemidji’s Chester Berg Toyota, said the dealership received 52 applications for a receptionist gig there but only four for a service technician one that, an industry survey indicates, paid considerably more.

“Cars are essentially high-powered computers at this point,” Martinka said Thursday at a conference of high school counselors at Northwest Technical College.

“So it’s no longer just like that greasemonkey stereotype. It really is a viable career in and of itself.”

Counselors there said that college — where students could learn to be, say, a service technician at a dealership — can be intimidating, and many high schoolers don’t know about the myriad certificates and two-year degrees available at tech schools such as NTC. And parents, the counselors said, might look down on tech schools or see post-secondary education as superfluous.

“Technical careers and technical career education is really vital for our area and for people’s personal growth,” said Darrin Strosahl, the vice president for academic affairs at the technical college. Strosahl said the school aims to help students navigate their educational and employment options and, ultimately, work to close that skills gap.

“The depth and the breadth of the technical careers is huge,” he said.

Manufacturing jobs aren’t necessarily grubby, assembly-line work anymore, Strosahl told the counselors, and students who get a certificate or an associate’s degree often have more financial freedom than those who end up with bachelor’s degree. A chemical engineer can expect to earn about $60,000 after a few years in the workforce, state data indicates, but a plumber can expect a salary that’s ultimately even higher than that.

Strosahl said that sort of factoid is what he and the counselors in the room needed to impress upon the public at large.

“Being a chemical engineer: great choice. Great choice for the right person if that’s what you like to do,” he said. “Plumbing? Great choice, if that’s what you like to do.”