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Annual Report | Technology: Shifting demands provide opportunities

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI - Of EXB Solution's eight full-time employees, all but one is a graduate of Bemidji State University.

"I never even really started looking for work," said Ken Roy, hired four years ago. "This was the first place I applied."

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EXB Solutions, an engineering firm that founded the Bemidji office in 2008, is indicative of technology-based industries in Bemidji that find potential employees through regional higher-education facilities.

Paul Bunyan Communications, for example, works with BSU and Northwest Technical College to ensure local job applicants are equipped with the necessary foundations needed to work in the telecommunications field.

Brian Bissonette, marking supervisor for Paul Bunyan Communications, said individual employers have company-specific systems, so prospective employees need to come out of college with a broad base of technological knowledge. Once hired, the employer will offer the company-specific training needed to complete the job.

"What we do and how we do it isn't necessarily how another telephone or cable company or wireless company would do it," Bissonette said. "A lot of what we do is unique to us."

Paul Bunyan Communications might implement a server differently than CenturyLink or Verizon, "But the basic skills are going to be the same," Bissonette said.

EXB Solutions, which tests safety control systems for industries such as aviation and aerospace, expanded from Wayzata to Bemidji, which now serves as its headquarters. Initially hiring five test engineers, EXB Solutions now has eight full-time employees, one full-time contract worker and two interns.

"I think it's pretty neat that a really high-level technology-based company is based in Bemidji in the northwoods," said Brandon Ritter, one of two lead test engineers. "There isn't a whole lot of opportunity to live in this area and have a good job. Certainly, EXB is an example for the community."

The five initial Bemidji hires were all BSU grads with majors in physics and engineering. Now, following recalibration cuts in 2011, BSU no longer is accepting new students for physics majors, but does offer a minor in physics.

Ritter said BSU's physics cuts were regrettable because those students are equipped with good problem-solving skills and understand the different facets of engineering.

The last several BSU grads hired by EXB Solutions have been computer science majors, he noted.

Dan Carlson, lead test engineer, said those hires have fit well with the company, too, as EXB Solutions has shifted projects. EXB's previous project was less focused on programming, and employees then needed to have more of a physics background.

"We're doing a lot more programming now," Carlson said.

"Not a lot of engineering anymore is done without a whole lot of computer science," Ritter added.

Two of the original five employees hired at EXB Solutions remain on staff, including Ritter and Roy. Together, the 10-person staff works collaboratively on a project, testing things such as laser gyroscopes and operating systems for the Orion space craft.

"It's definitely challenging," Carlson said of the work. "We're definitely a team here. We work together."

For Paul Bunyan Communications, Bissonette said the company hires employees with both two- and four-year degrees.

An applicant with a four-year degree might stand out among 50-some applications, he noted, but the company does not dismiss two-year degrees.

"It depends on their experience and their cover letter, too," he said.

Paul Bunyan Communications has about 130 full-time employees in a variety of fields. For technicians, those who go to install and repair equipment, there is a "unique" two-year program at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Wadena that is specific to the communications industry.

Of the employees who work with Internet, web pages and computer trouble-shooting, Bissonette said, many are BSU or NTC grads.

The difference between who is hired and who is not, he said, often comes down to who has the best combination of basic knowledge and soft skills, those skills focused on customer service.

"In technology, the soft skills really seem to be the differential," he said. "Those that have them are going go further. No matter what they do, they will be dealing with those skills."

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