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story.lead_photo.caption Shawn Strong, president of State Technical College of Missouri, is flanked by Gov. Mike Parson and Rep. Kathy Swan while speaking Thursday at a press conference regarding the "Fast-Track Workforce Incentive Grant" in the governor's office. Photo by Mark Wilson / News Tribune.

State Technical College of Missouri could be at the spearpoint of a statewide focus on workforce development.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson last week began holding roundtable discussions to develop priorities for workforce development.

As part of the governor's push to improve the state's economic development, Parson has worked with lawmakers sponsoring legislation that would launch a "Fast-Track Workforce Incentive Grant."

Those grants would be aimed at getting people 25 and older into training for jobs that are in high demand. Unfortunately, institutions like State Tech, in Linn, have not been able to attract those nontraditional students.

State Tech President Shawn Strong said more nontraditional students would consider the college if they had a way to pay for it that wouldn't put them in debt, he said.

Legislation being proposed this year promoting "Fast Track" could provide opportunities for adults to start over, get degrees and change their lives, he said.

"(It can) change their family's life — not only for them, but for generations to come," he said. "That's true not only for a technical college, but a community college and four-year universities. Those degrees change lives. Credentials change lives."

Fast Track would advance opportunities for low-income students, he said.

House Bill 225, sponsored by state Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, and Senate Bill 16, sponsored by state Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, would provide grants for Missouri residents to attend an approved Missouri post-secondary institution of his or her choice.

The legislation would require grant recipients to be 25 or older and to have an adjusted gross income of less than $80,000. The students must attend a designated program of study.

The House bill has passed out of committees and is on the House calendar, meaning it can come up on the House floor.

"Our office is committed to continuing work with the House and the Senate to get this legislation across the finish line," Parson said during a news conference Thursday, "simply because it's long overdue that the executive branch and the Legislature work together on meaningful legislation that's good for the entire state of Missouri."

Missouri needs to create the means for people to increase skills and move into high-paying, high-skill jobs, he said.

Missouri has fallen behind other states in preparing its residents for the evolving demands of the workforce, he added.

Fast Track will train Missourians in high-demand areas, Parson said.

Strong, who participated in Thursday's roundtable with the governor, said there's been an emphasis on workforce development in the Capitol over the past year.

"Our enrollment is up in a period when it doesn't make a lot of sense for our enrollment to be up," Strong said.

Positive discussions surrounding workforce development are partially to thank for strong enrollment at the technical college. It doesn't hurt that the college caters to full-time students, he said. That also helps the college maintain one of the highest graduate retention rates in the country.

"It's because we cater to a full-time student that only 6.7 percent of our students are 25 years old or older," Strong said, "the population that Fast Track caters to."

It's hard for a 25-year-old adult to attend college full time. But Fast Track has the potential to increase the percentage of adult students, he continued.

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State Tech students begin classes about 8 a.m. and continue in classes until into the afternoon. That's difficult to do for adults — for whom the Fast Track is geared — when they often already hold full-time jobs.

Students who could receive financial aid and who would earn higher wages at the end of two years might strongly consider Fast Track, Strong said.

If in five years the percentage of State Tech students who are over 25 years old has increased to 10 or 15 percent, that would be an indicator the program has been a success for the college, he said.

"We have students that get a four-year degree and go to work and figure out that's not what they want to do," Strong said. "We have some that never got a degree or credential."

While educators have a handle on which jobs are in high demand right now, such as biomedical instrumentation, Parson said the state would try to identify which industries will be in high demand in the future.

Biomedical instrumentation is a field in which service personnel maintain biomedical equipment. State Tech has one of the few programs to teach students those skills. Students come from out of state specifically for programs like the biomedical instrumentation program, Strong said.

Parson said a recent example of the state having a win was last year, when the Boeing Company awarded a multi-billion-dollar contract in St. Louis. But the state wants to look at all the subcontracts that come with the Boeing contracts.

"We want to go out there and look at all those subcontractors — some may be from outside the state," Parson said. "How do we get them to come to the state?"

The workforce must be in place.

"Institutions that are behind me today that are represented, whether it's community college or trade schools or universities, I think they're all understanding how important that is," Parson said. "For the first time, the business community, the education community and government are really focused on just what you're talking about: What are the jobs of tomorrow? What are the demands down the road?"

Those communities are all on the same page, Strong said.

A difficulty, he said, is informing students about which jobs will be in demand in the future.

"That is a challenge because students tend to migrate toward what they're familiar with," he said. "For a number of years, students migrated toward business and architecture, and some of those programs they knew well."

There are 400 people on State Tech's advisory board, which helps determine which programs need to be added, changed or removed.

It's the role of staff at high schools and technical colleges to inform students about which jobs are going to be in demand.

"Every day, we have a bus tour on campus. I would like to think that a lot of counsellors understand there are a lot of opportunities at State Tech. And they do a pretty good job of informing students," Strong said.

As part of its workforce development efforts, State Tech is creating a utility technology center. It's creating broadband programs, gas programs, water programs and heavy equipment, Strong said.

"When we talk about roads and bridges, where clearly the governor is putting an emphasis," he said. "We're trying to get a line to that. And we're looking at a civil program for folks who want to go out there as a bridge carpenter or work on a road crew because there's going to be a huge demand for that."

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