Habibo Abdi smiles easily, confidently, as she talks about her progress in an Adult Basic Education English class, which meets in space provided by Northland Community and Technical College here.

She is 27, a refugee from Somalia, who came to Grand Forks, N.D., seven months ago. She works at the local KFC franchise, but she hopes that with better proficiency in English and other skills she might improve her situation.

“I need more education,” she says. “Education is life.”

As debate continues across Minnesota over the evolving roles played by MnSCU schools — whether its trade-school function may be overshadowing the traditional liberal-arts mission — a specialized curriculum is taking shape at Northland aimed toward a new pool of workers: international refugees. Collaborating directly with big manufacturing companies as well as community and service agency leaders, the school is developing a course that would give students like Abdi the specialized job skills to move up in the workforce.

Dennis Bona, Northland’s president, said there is “an ethical, humanitarian passion that we are here to serve all students, all learners,” and that dovetails with area business needs. “We have an aging, retiring workforce, and what an amazing resource this community has in these new Americans,” he said. “Without them, we don’t have people in the hopper to fill those jobs.”

Despite this year’s big slowdown in the oil industry, North Dakota’s unemployment rate remains one of the lowest in the country, at 2.4 percent, while the October rate in Grand Forks County, the most recent available, was just 1.6 percent.

As many as 1,000 refugees have come to or been resettled in Grand Forks over the past decade, from Bosnia, Iraq, Burundi and other countries. Most recent arrivals, about 100 a year, are Somali and Bhutanese, many of whom spent 20 years or more in refugee camps before being cleared by the U.S. State Department.

“When they arrive here and try to get a job, they often face three hurdles,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the local chamber, who has been involved in the new program. Language, basic manufacturing skills. “And third, how do you fit into the American workforce? What do you wear to work? If you were to take me and drop me in China and tell me to get a job, what would I need to know to be successful?”

Big regional employers, such as American Crystal Sugar Co. and Marvin Windows, are helping build the program’s curriculum, details of which still being worked out, said Brian Huschle, Northland’s East Grand Forks campus dean. But he hopes the program can start within a few months. Funding will come in part from a three-year, $15 million U.S. Labor Department grant that Northland shares with 11 other Minnesota colleges. The tentative goal is to put at least 50 immigrants through 150 to 160 hours of training in the first course.

The Northland program has been modeled partly after a program that the North Dakota State College of Science has offered in Fargo since 2002, when international refugees began arriving there. About 870 people have been trained for jobs in manufacturing and nursing, said Janie Hulett, director. Many of those students “had few educational opportunities or had their education interrupted by war and violence,” Hulett said. The classes opened doors “by providing the skill training necessary to prepare them for work above the entry level, thereby enabling them to obtain a higher standard of living for themselves and their families.”

 

Chuck Haga, a former reporter for the Grand Forks Herald and the Star Tribune, teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota.