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ND coal industry to teachers: Keep challenging students

BISMARCK — Leaders of North Dakota's coal industry say they have high-paying job opportunities but need teachers to push students to take harder classes.

Representatives from the lignite energy industry spoke to about 100 teachers Thursday, June 15, about their workforce needs, emphasizing a shortage of workers with highly technical skills.

Dan Dorfschmidt, operations manager for Butler Machinery, which sells and services machinery for coal and other industries, said he has 100 job openings for diesel technicians, including 25 jobs in Bismarck.

The company is trying to reach students when they are sophomores or juniors through school outreach or job shadowing programs so they can get prepared.

"We want a student to understand the industry he's going into before he gets there," Dorfschmidt said during a teachers seminar sponsored by the Lignite Energy Council. "It can't wait until the last weeks before the graduate to decide this looks good in a catalog somewhere."

Dorfschmidt said students interested in technical jobs should take more math and science, as well as English classes so they can write reports and communicate effectively.

Jay Volk, environmental manager for BNI Coal, said a starting salary for an operator is $84,000 plus benefits. The company is trying to educate people throughout the region about job openings, which include diesel mechanics, electricians, welders, geologists and engineers.

"These are good, high-paying jobs," Volk said.

The industry leaders also said teachers and parents should do more to encourage students about opportunities from two-year technical degrees, rather than only emphasizing four-year degrees.

"A lot of students really succeed in a two-year, hands-on type curriculum," said Bruce Emmil, associate vice president for the National Energy Center of Excellence at Bismarck State College.

In addition to education and qualifications, Dorfschmidt said he considers applicants' social media accounts before making a hiring decision.

"Kids that have pictures of beer bongs on their Facebook page, that doesn't do anything for me," he said. "I'm looking for not only experience but also character."

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