Helping workers earn their degrees

On campus and off, UND seeks to broaden employee education

Charlie Gorecki, left, CEO of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center, and Tom Erickson, director of the State Energy Research Center, are pursuing their Ph.D. degrees under a University initiative to provide continuing education opportunities for employees. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Online education and a willingness to be flexible are enabling the University of North Dakota to provide opportunities for advanced degrees and education, not only for employees of the University, but also for workers for companies and other organizations near and far.

What began as a program at one location on campus has become a campus-wide initiative to broaden education opportunities for all UND employees. And an inquiry from Digi-Key Electronics in nearby Thief River Falls, Minn., has provided the impetus to offer online education opportunities to businesses across the United States.

Chris Nelson

“Every employer faces their own financial pressures,” said Chris Nelson, associate dean in the UND School of Graduate Studies. “They have a reason to invest in the continuing education of their employees. They’ve made an investment by hiring them. If they can provide employees further training that makes them even more productive as the needs of business change, that’s all to the better. We want to provide an avenue for that to happen.”

It is already happening. It started during the summer when Nelson worked with UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), where there was strong interest from employees who wanted to pursue advanced degrees or further their education as they performed their jobs.

Pathways for employee education

“We developed pathways for them,” Nelson related. “There was interest in the MBA program. Other employees discussed the possibility of additional training in English or communications to help further their writing and research abilities. Physics and chemistry are other possibilities being discussed.”

Two of the most high-profile participants in the initiative are EERC CEO Charlie Gorecki and Tom Erickson, director of the State Energy Research Center (SERC), which was created this year by the North Dakota Legislature. SERC gets $5 million per biennium to conduct exploratory, transformational and innovative research that advances future energy opportunities to benefit North Dakota’s economy and environment.

Gorecki is pursuing his Ph.D. in petroleum engineering and Erickson is pursuing his Ph.D. in energy engineering, both through the UND College of Engineering & Mines. They are seeing an effort that began five years ago come to fruition and credit the Office of Academic Affairs and Provost Tom DiLorenzo for its success.

“We’ve been looking for ways to make it happen and to encourage more people,” Erickson said. “We’ve been working internally to create an employee development program that puts significant focus on and provides significant opportunity for people to become lifelong learners. It’s valuable to the EERC to have lifelong learners and to have people advancing their education – and it’s great for the University.”

Nelson agrees, and added, “There’s more of a recognition now by employers and also by educational institutions that people in the workforce need access to all different kinds of training. It may not be in the area they were originally in or even directly related to the area they’re working in.”

Earning advanced degrees

The opportunity for UND employees to pursue advanced degrees while still working is a benefit to the University, Gorecki said. “Not having to give up a job to get a master’s or Ph.D. is big thing,” he explained. “We can work with the main campus to facilitate it in a way that makes sense for somebody who’s already immersed in a research environment.”

The trend toward providing more advanced education opportunities for employees has broad implications for businesses and government agencies, and UND’s online education offerings have positioned the University well in that regard, Nelson believes. Furthermore, within the region, the University has shown it can also be flexible in meeting employers’ education and training needs.

Digi-Key Electronics located in Thief River Falls, Minn., is working in partnership with UND on a program that enables employees to earn master’s degrees in computer science. With 4,000 employees, nearly $3.2 billion in annual sales and customers worldwide, the company is expanding its facilities and looking to broaden educational opportunities for its employees. Artist’s rendering courtesy of Digi-Key Electronics.

This opportunity occurred with Digi-Key, located about 50 miles east of Grand Forks, N.D. The company has nearly $3.2 billion in annual sales, more than 4,000 employees and last year shipped more than 5 million packages to 177 countries. Digi-Key has about 8.5 million products available online, 1.7 million products in stock and handles 3.7 million internet orders a year.

Ryan Adams, chair of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, led UND’s effort to provide employees at Digi-Key with the ability to earn master’s degrees in computer science. When they couldn’t come to UND, the University went to them.

“Digi-Key has hired a lot of our students over the years,” Adams said. “We have one alum who expressed an interest in pursuing a graduate education. He’s responsible for other employees who were also interested. One of the big things they wanted was for the classes to be face-to-face. They wanted us to come there and teach to them in their facility. We said, ‘That’s fine. We can do that.’”

Online education is key

UND teaches one computer science class a semester at Digi-Key, Adams said. A class that’s normally taught two or three days a week at the University is held one night a week at Digi-Key’s facility. The success of the program has led to discussions about creating a curriculum for other company employees to earn undergraduate degrees.

Ryan Adams, chair of UND’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is working with Digi-Key and other companies locally and nationally to provide online continuing education for employees in business and government. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“Flexibility is important to them, and that’s true with a lot of industry folks,” Adams related. “We’re developing some programs that will open the door for graduate certificates. A student who doesn’t want to get a full master’s, but wants to take a few classes to learn certain advanced topics, will be able to do that and get a certificate out of it. If they continue to get additional certificates, that will lead to a master’s degree.”

In addition, Adams has had discussions about online educational opportunities UND can provide for companies such as Microsoft and Boeing. Locally, he’s in discussions with the city of Grand Forks about advanced education courses for both government and business employees.

“Historically, computer science programs at UND haven’t been offered online, but they are now,” Adams noted. “It’s part of why we’re now doing outreach to help everyone understand that we’re in this space now and we’d love to partner with them to meet their needs. It’s a great opportunity for us to reach out to regional partners and strengthen those relationships.”