Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the Montana University System is confident it can train the workforce needed to grow the state's technology industry, Salish Kootenai College will play a role of its own.

A consortium of Montana universities and colleges, along with leaders in the technology industry, plan to pursue federal funding to establish a state tech hub. The first round of funding from the new program, fueled by the CHIPS and Sciences Act, will be available soon.

Montana already is working to organize its strategy and those behind the effort believe the opportunities could be significant if the state is selected by the U.S. Economic Development Administration for funding and program participation.

“This tech hub to me could be very critical,” said Sandra Boham, president of Salish Kootenai College. “A hub and an opportunity to partner means our students can work at whatever level they want.”

While the federal program has a number of requirements it will consider when awarding tech-hub funding, tribal participation and workforce training stand near the top.

Sandra Bohem
Sandra Bohem

Boham said her college is uniquely positioned to help the state pursue its goals and turn out the workforce needed to meet the demands of Montana's growing tech industry.

“Tribal colleges are not part of the Montana brain drain. Our students don't want to leave our state.” Boham said. “A lot of our students come to us from the other seven reservations and when they graduate, they return there and contribute to their community.”

Workforce training meets higher education

Training the workforce needed to meet the needs of specific tech businesses isn't a new concept in Montana. In Missoula, Cognizant-ATG and the University of Montana tipped up a program in a matter of months to train students for the jobs the company needs to fill in order to grow.

The program has graduated a number of cohorts in recent years, and most of those students land high-paying jobs within the company upon graduating. Other tech companies are looking to educate a workforce of their own using a similar model, though distance has posed a challenge.

“As our technology ecosystem continues to grow here in Montana, we face challenges in recruiting the best talent,” said Jeff Turner with Applied Materials. “We need to continue to strengthen our higher education programs to produce an even stronger workforce.”

Applied Materials is among the world's leading producer of semiconductor and display equipment, and while its offices are global and its revenue is measured in the billions of dollars, it maintains a manufacturing, research and development location in Kalispell.

The Kalispell office and Salish Kootenai College – located on the Flathead Indian Reservation – have explored a partnership similar to that of ATG and UM in Missoula, though transportation and distance remain a challenge. But Turner believes new opportunities may emerge if the state succeeds in winning federal funding.

“This tech-hub investment is a great vehicle to support this and create new opportunities for Montana,” he said, adding that the state's population of young adults is growing. “It gives us an opportunity to provide the best level of education to these people and be able to educate them to support our industry moving forward.”

Turner cited estimates projecting that 1 million new jobs will be created globally by 2030. Applied Materials also believes the American semiconductor industry will add 300,000 new jobs by the same year.

Some of those new jobs are expected to land in Montana, though business and educational leaders want to maximize the end result.

“This growth will be along all roles and jobs,” Turner said. “It goes across all segments. We forecast that about 40% of that increase is going to require a bachelor's education or better while another 40% will require operational skills or technician level skills. As we create these jobs and with the advancement in our higher education system, we'll be able to keep our kids here.”