Altru Health System, Economic Development Corp., True North and JLG make big contributions to proposed Grand Forks Career Impact Academy

Led by Altru's $1 million commitment, project gains $1.6 million in funds in recent days

Altru Health System has pledged $1 million to a fundraising campaign to create a new technical education center in Grand Forks, one of several organizations to commit large donations totaling more than $1.6 million in recent days.

Along with Altru’s donation, the campaign this week received $500,000 commitments from the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp., $100,000 from True North Equipment and $50,000 from JLG Architects.

The funds will help a core group of local leaders, led by the local school district, as they apply for $10 million in state funding to help realize the project. Critically, winning that funding depends on a local match of $10 million from the community, making this week’s gifts part of an early round of philanthropy that almost certainly must continue before an application deadline in less than two months.

“This is one of the most significant projects that the community has undertaken,” said Keith Lund, president and CEO of the local Economic Development Corporation, “and one of the most significant and important projects that we’ve seen since my time at the EDC over the last 15 years.”

The EDC’s board of directors unanimously approved the commitment during a Thursday morning meeting. Half of the $500,000 will come from the EDC’s reserve funds, while the other half will come from the EDC’s foundation.

Kristi Hall-Jiran, a senior philanthropy official with Altru, told the Herald that she sees Altru’s commitment as an investment in the community. That investment will pay dividends for not just the average employer, she said, but also specifically at Altru, which has felt the pangs of a nationwide labor shortage roiling health care and beyond.

“The health care situation is especially critical, and really an urgent need across the country. Altru is no different, and in particular nursing is one of our disciplines that we’re seeing as really a critical workforce shortage right now,” Jiran-Hall said.

A spokesperson said the company currently has 95 hospital-based registered nursing positions open in Grand Forks.

The career and tech center, local leaders hope, can ease those workforce shortages. If it’s built, it would exist somewhere between a trade school and a junior college and a university, helping steer students toward curriculum and careers that match them up with local employers.

John Oncken, CEO and co-owner of True North, said the center is a helpful way to get students excited about jobs they might not otherwise consider, such as agriculture work. Easily dismissed as farm labor, it’s a huge sector that needs all kinds of workers.

“My field is around (artificial intelligence), technology, efficiency, automation, (information technology), growing more crop per acre than I’ve ever done before and working with some really spaceship-type machines. … We have an education system that kind of maybe doesn’t define where the industry is at,” Oncken said.

The push for the career center comes as Grand Forks, the state and even the rest of the country wrestle with a workforce shortage — one that has roiled labor supply in trucking and service sectors and beyond. It’s hard to point to precisely what has caused that shortage, but many observers say it’s the result of shifting demographics, the lasting effects of COVID or both.

“I do think the pandemic has changed the way people think in general about work. People are being a little bit more selective about where they’ll take a job,” Hall-Jiran said. “I’ve heard it described as the ‘great resignation.’ I think it’s a trend we’re seeing across the country, and clearly Grand Forks is no different.”

Meanwhile, Oncken said, “we have so many opportunities to capture the youth (attention) early and help them understand truly what’s available.”

Mike McLean, principal architect at JLG Architects, said in a statement from the Economic Development Corp. that “at JLG, we build community – and what better way to help our community thrive than by supporting forward-thinking, collaborative education for the future workforce in our region.”

So far, Lund estimates, there’s a little less than $4.5 million of the total $10 million in funding in hand to meet the threshold the state requires. That includes funding announced this week, as well as a $1 million sum from the local school district and a likely land donation from the city of Grand Forks.

The project has been hurtling toward development since the summer, with input from many Grand Forks leaders — in local schools, universities and city and county governments.

The deadline for applying for funding is Dec. 1 — though Lund points out that everything needs to be ready for local school officials, who will submit the application, to sign off at a School Board meeting in late November.

That means the clock is ticking, on state funding, and there’s only about six weeks to go.

“This center is going to be focused on introducing to and training students for careers that are right here in the Grand Forks region … ” Lund said. “In terms of making an investment on local workforce needs, this is the project that is going to have the biggest impact, in my opinion.”