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NTC eyes commercial refrigeration program

BEMIDJI -- Staff at Northwest Technical College might add a commercial refrigeration program.

Leaders at the tech school on Tuesday asked staff from a handful of companies in that industry what their professional needs are, what they’d like to see in a commercial refrigeration training program at the college, and so on.

“We’re short,” said Cory Schreifels from Carlson & Stewart Refrigeration, a Marshall, Minnesota-based company that specializes in commercial and industrial refrigeration systems. Schreifels said his company has had to turn down work because they don’t have the manpower.

Companies throughout the region have noticed a blue-collar labor shortage. Many have recruited at area high schools, where their staffers urge students to consider two-year degrees and technical jobs. Some of the businesspeople who met at NTC described a prevailing attitude that they said favors four-year institutions or straight-to-the-workforce jobs.

And NTC leaders have been reconsidering their school’s offerings within a broader strategic planning process. The college has cut some of its programs recently and its enrollment numbers have steadily declined since 2012. Darrin Strosahl, NTC’s vice president of academic affairs, said ensuring the school’s future means ensuring students’ employment prospects after they graduate.

“We have to be responsive,” Strosahl said. “Because if we do what we've always done we're going to be dead.”

A commercial refrigeration program at the technical college, business leaders there said, would teach students electrical theory, refrigeration theory (which would involve a lot of physics work), and aim to set the academic bar high so graduates can competently work on industrial or commercial refrigeration and HVAC but filter to less-demanding work in residential heating or air conditioning if they want. They also stressed the need for enthusiastic instructors who stay up-to-date on industry practices and might get students excited about HVAC and refrigeration work, which can be more lucrative and less physically taxing than more popular trades like outdoor electrical work or carpentry.

Beyond that, the assembled businesspeople wondered why many technical college programs combine plumbing and HVAC training because, they said, few tradespeople work in both once they graduate. A program like commercial refrigeration, some felt, might make more sense attached to HVAC training than plumbing.

Others at the meeting said the school should look for students with a “motorhead” sort of mentality who are mechanically inclined and unafraid to get grubby.

“When I went to my high school counselor, she told me that she recommended no further education. Because I didn't excel in English, I didn't -- I wasn't college material,” said David McCollum, who owns Bemidji-based Naylor Heating and Refrigeration. “That's kind of the kids you want to find in my opinion, that don't like to sit still, they don't like sitting in the classroom… But they're driven.”

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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