Big Sky Economic Development News

The Power of Collaboration – by Karen Baumgart

May 02, 2018

Written by  – Karen Baumgart, Director of BillingsWorks

I have the privilege of getting to hang and collaborate with our local workforce council which is made up of industry leaders, education partners and community stakeholders. As a council we are tasked with ensuring Yellowstone County has a talent pool deep enough to support our growing economy. And, as you may have guessed, a large aspect of our work is to align education with current and future workforce needs.

While I have only been in this role for just over a year, I have learned the power that comes with combining industry with education. And let me tell you Billings, there are some stellar collaborative efforts taking place in our city.

For instance, STEM Billings, charged by Dan Carter and his stellar STEM Strike Force, is a local organization dedicated to exposing 4-8th graders to not only the interest but the fun of Science Technology Engineering in Math. This program hosts STEM Saturdays all over our city focusing on areas such as Environmental Science, Adventures in Coding, and Healthcare. Attending these events, I’ve learned that given a toilet plunger, a sponge and some tape, our brilliant young minds can craft a well-functioning prosthetic leg. I’ve also learned that not everyone is cut out for dissecting a cow’s eyeball, as one student needed his mother to bring him crackers as he felt faint after this activity. Affirming the point that sometimes learning what we don’t like is just as important as what we do like.

In addition to STEM Billings, Billings has MSUB’s Girls in Science program, which hosts a soiree in early Spring for Girls (and boys) to engage in science-related experiences and activities. This year, I watched as kiddos dressed up as their future scientist selves, putting on hardhats, lab coats, and posing with stethoscopes, beakers and the like for a photo. I learned in a supportive environment, that our students jump over stereotypical barriers and move toward their dream of being a neurosurgeon, inventor of the flying car and beyond.

I’ve witnessed the impact that comes when educators connect with organizational leaders and partner to create new programs that address a specific industry need. Such is the situation of The Career Center launching a CNA program hoping for 30 students and receiving 117 signups.

Under the leadership of Tina Boone, 40 Skyview high schoolers spent a day shadowing positions in our business community – including Chemical Engineers, Pathology, Accounting, a Zoo keeper, Pilot and Funeral director. Big Sky ED was lucky enough to host two students, Hunter and Kelly on this career day. Wanting their perspective in PR and Marketing, we pulled them in to help us with our talent attraction campaign. And, from their slightly mortified faces, I learned that Facebook is no longer cool and if you’re not snapchatting you’re nothing. Noted.

Finally, we’ve realized that if we ask industry to join the education conversation, they will. Billings has created its first ever CTE Business Liaison with a CTE Advisory Board made up of educators and 20 business leaders. This group meets monthly to discuss how we can improve career and technical education across school district 2 and beyond.

These are just a handful of the ways in which we are working together, industry and education, to produce our future entrepreneurs, teachers, nurses, web designers and influential citizens.

The overall theme from these learning experiences is that when industry and education come together to elevate our students’ education, we break down barriers and allow our community to be the classroom. But most importantly, I’ve noticed if we partner to provide opportunities and then get out of the way, students will not only rise to the occasion, they will exceed our expectations.

I assure you Billings, the rest of the state is watching. They’re watching how we build programs and expose students to the skill sets they will need to succeed in the future workforce. I encourage us not to view this situation as being placed under a microscope, but rather to use it to position ourselves to be brave and harness this leadership role into continued innovative action. While I’m incredibly impressed with our efforts, I challenge us to be bold and ask, “How cool would it be if we turned a school into a hospital for a week, giving each student a role in the organization? Or if we allowed students to attend a meeting at First Interstate Bank and weigh in?” But most importantly, to wonder “What would we learn if we tried” – and then try.