Retaining college grads key to Missoula’s economic growth

By James Gruke

As thousands of students begin a new school year at the University of Montana, we not only say “welcome,” but “plan on sticking around for a good, long while.”

James Grunke

Whether freshman or senior, born and bred here or a newcomer, each UM student helps to shape our community’s future. At the Missoula Economic Partnership, we want that involvement to be active and lasting. In other words, “We want you to thrive. We want you here to stay.”

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that students graduate from Montana’s colleges and universities only to leave our state. The reality is that 80 percent of our graduates are employed in Montana a year later, and we are working diligently to push that number even higher.

Our mission is to create good-paying jobs that challenge our graduates, utilize their talents and training, sustain and reward their entrepreneurship, and provide solid paths for advancement.

As an economic development organization, MEP identifies target industries that serve the needs of Missoula’s growing economy. Employers in each of these industries seek out the graduates of both UM and Missoula College. Jobs in these industries are increasingly abundant.

Over the summer, we released a new five-year plan and a list of industry clusters that will be our priority targets, including information technology and data; biotech and life sciences; advanced manufacturing; creative industries; finance and insurance; warehousing and distribution; and business support services.

Students who want a fast-tracked career path often choose Missoula College, which offers programs that directly correspond with a future in our target industries.

RevUp, a partnership between Montana’s two-year colleges and the Department of Labor, uses federal grant money to fund programs that accelerate work readiness and prepare students for well-paid, high-demand jobs.

Missoula College’s programs in computer technology, practical nursing and heavy machine operation, among others, prepare graduates for immediate employment in the workforce.

The success stories are spread across our community:

Providence St. Patrick Hospital is the largest private employer in Missoula, and its demand for health-care professionals and technicians grows by the day. CM Manufacturing produces parts for aircraft and needs trained CNC machinists to supply its workforce. Missoula is replete with high-tech businesses seeking employees trained in IT, computer systems and communications.

There are also abundant opportunities for students who enter UM with less certainty about their career path. Our advice is this: Take advantage of the incredible liberal arts programs at the University of Montana, give yourself the time and space to find your calling. Your education will hone the skills that employers across all industries seek: the ability to communicate, the ability to think critically, and above all else, the ability to learn.

Employment opportunities in Missoula are as varied and eclectic as are the interests and talents of UM’s student body. One notable example is Submittable, a Missoula-based tech company that advertises not only for the expected developer and designer positions, but also for a “You Tell Us” position.

We need employees, the company says, “who don’t fit the majority of existing job descriptions but are obsessive about what they do.” The key is creative engagement. The only limit is your own imagination and desire.

As you embark upon or continue your journey through higher education in the months ahead, our call to action is simple: Find your opportunity in Missoula. Seek out ways to engage your interests, talents and skills through meaningful experiences, whether through internships, social activism or volunteerism. Challenge our community; we’re eager for your ideas and involvement. And when you reach the end of your time as a student, Missoula has a job – and a home – for you.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column for the Missoulian’s Sunday Western Montana InBusiness section.