EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - Giving students a taste of the real business world is a key to the success of two technical training programs in the Grand Forks area. Divided by the sometimes tempestuous Red River are the communities of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn. Each community boasts exceptional technical training programs, designed to bring young people into the mechanical trades and keep them interested in the career path they have chosen.

The News visited the key people behind both programs in order to find out what makes them so successful.

Chris Reak looks over the HVAC and electrical lab classroom at Northland Community & Technical College.

Northland Community & Technical College

To the east of the Red River in Minnesota, Chris Reak has spent many hours teaching students the many aspects of the HVAC trade. Along with fellow instructor Steve Kroke, Reak has developed a curriculum that was basically nonexistent when he was hired in 2001.

"We had six students," he recalled. "I was hired to turn the program around. They hired me on a Thursday, and on Monday I had to start teaching."

Reak currently averages 22 to 24 students per term. Northland Community & Technical College (www.northlandcollege.edu) offers a two-year HVAC degree program - not a two-year certificate.

The degree program demands the students take additional classes. This can include training in soft skills, which will be important if they have to work face-to-face with customers.

"It is a degree or nothing else," he said. "In order to offer the degree, we had to take out some technical courses and offer reading, writing, philosophy, etc. A majority of the kids will take a sales and marketing class."

The 64-credit program places a lot of emphasis on electricity, including theory and controls. "We have 96 hours of electrical theory and 48 hours of control electricity," Reak said. "I don't think students understand the importance of electricity in HVAC systems. We take students out to a power plant to see how electricity is made.

"That trip means a lot to the students because what they know about electricity is usually what comes out of an outlet on the wall."

The training lab at Northland places a lot of emphasis on individual, hands-on learning. Reak and Kroke are in the middle of building individual workstations for each student. Each station includes a complete HVAC system. There are also separate workstations with computers for each student, allowing them to program and troubleshoot building control systems.

Reak said every student knows what to expect going in to the program. "We don't sugarcoat - we lay it all out on the line for them," he said. "They know the cost of tuition and the cost of tools.

"We ask the students where they want to be in two years, geographically, monetarily, and what type of position they want. We ask them where they expect to be in five years - and what they expect from us. We collect that data and then go back to them, telling them what we expect of them."

Instructors Steve Kroke (left) and Chris Reak show off the equipment in one of the lab’s individual workstations.
Kroke added that he wants students to understand that the two-year degree is only the beginning. "The first day I see them, I congratulate them on making the decision to attend school," he said. "I tell them to look at our courses as not a two-year experience but a four-year experience. The first two years working in the field are training - give it at least two years to find out if you like your choice.

"If the students want to learn, we'll give them everything they need to know. But after two years of school here, their education is not done."

Kroke mentioned field training, which is an integral part of the curriculum. Many of the students are hired by area contractors to work part-time while they attend classes. Reak said the ones that choose to work develop good relationships with their employers, and this experience puts them far ahead of the others who choose to wait until they graduate.

"The pay is $7 to $8 an hour part-time; that helps with tuition," Reak said. "Upon graduation, they can expect to make $10 to $14 an hour [locally]. If they want to make more in a different part of the country, I tell them that we can get them there."

But Reak would prefer to keep the homegrown talent in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area. "We are indebted to the local contractors for hiring our students," he said. "If they didn't hire them, we wouldn't be here. We can keep the students here if they stay motivated in what they are doing and focused on the end result."

Dave McFarlane and Kim Jones discuss the School-to-Career program offered through the Grand Forks Public Schools.

Grand Forks Vocational Technical Consortium

Meanwhile, west of the Red River in North Dakota, administrators at Grand Forks Public Schools know the importance of providing the total work experience for children in the school system. That's why there are programs for students in seventh grade and above that track the progress of each student up until graduation, when it is hoped that each student will know what career path to pursue and how to do it in the Grand Forks area.

School counselors meet with students and parents during the seventh, ninth, 10th and 12th grades. "Every year they get a greater glimpse into who they are and how that relates to career options," said Pam Peterson, Career & Character Ed Curriculum Coordinator.

"We are now looking at the bigger picture, getting fourth through sixth graders interested in careers and going forward to picking the right classes in high school for these careers."

That's good news for area businesses like McFarlane Sheet Metal. Owner Dave McFarlane saw the value of a program titled "School-to-Career" and became a founding business partner of the Technical Consortium. Being a partner gives his business direct access to students who have chosen to pursue a technical career.

"We saw the potential for the success of a program like this," he stated. "It seems that everyone knows what a plumber does or what an electrician does, but no one knows what a sheet metal mechanic or refrigeration mechanic does. By being a part of this program, the students can learn about the sheet metal apprentice program."

McFarlane works closely with career consultant Kim Jones, whose title also includes community school coordinator. Jones is the liaison between local businesses and the career education program. "Kim is my go-to person," McFarlane said.

Jones explained the School-to-Career program.

"We set up a three-year partnership with a business," she said. "The internship program was set up for kids who weren't interested in going on to college. This gives the kids the experience to see what is happening out there - and to involve their parents and teachers.

Jones noted that only 25 percent of businesses require a four-year degree or higher, according to a 2005 study. "A lot more than 25 percent of the job seekers who have a four-year degree wish they had gone to a technical college," she added.

What helps the students in the program as much as the textbook training is the hands-on training with a mentor from each business. Developing a relationship is just as important as textbook learning.

"We try to find businesses that have someone on staff to act as a mentor and show an interest in the young person, showing them the career paths," said Jones.

Jerome Gunderson, Grand Forks Public Schools career/technical director said this program is different from any other. "We have a unique partnership, perhaps the only one like it in the nation," he said. "We have the time and the resources to work with the McFarlanes of the world."

McFarlane is grateful for the close involvement of the consortium because people like Jones know exactly what he is looking for. "We don't have to go after the college-bound students," he noted. "We want to get the kids who like to work with their hands.

"We don't want teachers to send us only the students with the highest grade point average. It's natural for them to send these students because they represent the best of the class. But we want those students who are genuinely interested in a career in HVAC."

Jones said that any HVAC contractor in Grand Forks can take advantage of the services offered by the consortium. "We don't have a formal partnership with other contractors, but we invite them into our job shadowing program, or if there are field trip opportunities with other businesses, we welcome their participation."

McFarlane said, "We have two very good employees from the program right now and a third who we are trying to convince that sheet metal is a great career."

The end result of the program is a motivated student and a happy employer - two ways to keep talented technicians in the Grand Forks market.

For more information, visit www.gfschools.org/careereducation.

Publication date: 04/04/2005