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Two-day MSU Billings conference focuses on bridging education, workforce gap

National, state and local speakers call for leadership to meet 21st century challenges

MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — The United States — and Montana — are at a crossroads, many education experts say. Unless new ways are found to bridge the gap between workforce needs and education, the United States will be forced to playing catch-up with other nations.

“A well-educated and trained citizenry will be the most effective way to ensure Montana has the workforce needed to move the state forward in the 21st century,” said Dr. Ron Sexton, chancellor of Montana State University Billings. “Unfortunately, we are not keeping pace with the rest of the world.”

Recent studies and statistics affirm that assertion:

  • Over two-thirds of new jobs being created require college education or advanced training.
  • As recently as 1998, the U.S. ranked first in percentage of 25-34 year olds with at least a bachelor’s degree, but by 2005 it had dropped to seventh. Between 2000 and 2005, out of 23 developed countries, the U.S. was the only country that showed no increase in its postsecondary graduation rate.
  • Over a lifetime, dropouts earn $260,000 less than high school graduates and contribute about $60,000 less in federal and state income taxes.

Finding ways to address those issues is the focus of a two-day conference hosted by MSU Billings next week.

“Reach Higher Montana” is a conference dedicated to discussing those issues and developing possible solutions for Montana. It features a number of national experts who will discuss the latest data on educational attainment, dropout rates and best practices for reaching out to adult learners.

“Reach Higher Montana” will be held Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 12-13, 2008, at the MSU Billings College of Technology Health Sciences Building, 3803 Central Ave. Registration is $150 per person and a limited number of open registration slots are available.  Registration includes meals both days, an evening reception on Wednesday and access to key data and resources.

The keynote speaker on Wednesday will be Dr. Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in New York and a member of the National Commission on Adult Literacy. The commission published a report in June called “Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce” upon which the local conference is based.

“Almost a decade into the 21st century, America faces a choice: We can invest in the basic education and skills of our workforce and remain competitive in today’s global economy, or we can continue to overlook glaring evidence of a national crisis and move further down the path to decline,” the report’s executive summary states. “The commission recommends immediate action to reverse the course we are on. It calls for strong, bold leadership from federal and state government and it challenges business leaders, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector to become part of the solution.”

Mellow, who has served on many national education advisory panels, will focus on the international and national significance of the issues addressed in the report as well as the report’s findings and recommendations during her “Reach Higher Montana” address.  Business and nonprofit leaders are encouraged to attend the conference and be a part of the conversation.

Located in Long Island City, Queens in New York City, LaGuardia Community College is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges. Founded in 1971, LaGuardia Community College has been recognized as an innovator in educating students who are underprepared for college work and/or are not primary English speakers.

Other highlights and topics of the conference include:

  • “The Threat of Inequality in Workforce Development” by Mr. Brian Prescott, Director of Policy Research for Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). The focus on his talk will be on the recent WICHE Policy Report titled “Beyond Social Justice: The Threat of Inequality to Workforce Development in the Western United States” with special emphasis on the findings related to educational attainment rates in Montana among different ethnicities.
  • “Serving Adult Students: What Really Matters” by Dr. Brenda Harms – Consultant for Stamats, Inc. The focus of her talk will be on findings and recommendations of the Stamats White Paper on “The Must Do List for Colleges and Universities” to serve adult learners differently. Stamats is a higher education organization that provides strategic solutions to current challenges.
  • “Issues and Implications for Business and Industry” Mr. Kevin Turner – IBM:  Turner will focus be on how some corporations are assessing the current and future implications of current education and workforce issues, workforce projections and the role of industry in being part of the solutions.
  • “21st Century Students Deserve a 21st Century Education” by Mr. Kevin Turner – IBM: Focus will be on specific strategies and approaches emerging within industry to address current challenges.
  • “Addressing Dropout and Adult Literacy Issues in Montana” by Mrs. Margaret Bowles – Montana Office of Public Instruction Adult Literacy and Basic Education Specialist: Her focus will be on an assessment of the scope of workforce/education issues in Montana and future directions that are emerging for adult education.
  • Community Panel: “The Education Gap’s Impact On At-Risk Populations” featuring:
  • Mr. Larry Burke, Director Vocation Education, Montana Department of Corrections
  • Ms. Reno Charette, Native American Studies Coordinator, MSU Billings
  • Mr. Jack Copps, Superintendent, Billings Public Schools
  • Mr. Jim Ronquillo, Billings City Councilman

For more information on the conference and to register, contact Sharon Weatherwax-Ripley at 896-5875. People can also see a full agenda and register online at www.msubillings.edu/reachhigher.

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