BISMARCK -- Don Morton, a senior director with Microsoft in Fargo, said Wednesday that businesses have to help attract students to North Dakota's 11 public colleges and be more proactive to build a strong pool of potential employees.

"Partnerships is everybody doing their part. Businesses have such a vested interest in higher ed, why not get engaged and help guide things?" said Morton, a former North Dakota State University football coach who also is a member of the State Board of Higher Education. "Businesses have to get these kids into a work environment, getting experience, and that's the responsibility we have to build our workforce."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

To get engaged, John Richman, president of the North Dakota State College of Science, said businesses can help identify, recruit and support college students around the state.

"They should have a job identified before starting their higher education training," he said.

The two were part of a group of more than 40 higher education, chamber of commerce and business leaders who came together to highlight what the colleges and businesses are doing to meet each other's demands, and ways they can work together in the future.

The common message that echoed throughout the 90-minute meeting was businesses and the North Dakota University System need to communicate more with each other and the public.

The event was sponsored by Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, who said it was a good start for businesses and education.

"We understand we need more employees in North Dakota and we need more young people to get educated in North Dakota and stay in North Dakota," he said. "So we have to start looking at all those issues. We don't know what that entails yet, but we'll get to it."

During the meeting, many highlighted higher education's role as an economic driving force in the state, with Kirsten Diederich, president of the state board, later pointing out that the University System drew $4.4 billion into the economy in 2011, up from $1.6 billion in 1999.

But while the schools provide the economic impact, the two entities noted that the number of North Dakota graduates can't keep up with the growing workforce.

Like the universities, more businesses are helping find more students by speaking at high schools to raise their interest about pursuing a degree related to their work.

Morton said that's where businesses can do more, as internships are critical and it's too late to wait for college students to hit their junior year. Microsoft offers internships to high school students.

In a short presentation for the business leaders, Robert Kelley, president of the University of North Dakota, pointed out two links higher education has to the business community.

The first is preparing a workforce. "We do everything we can to prepare our students to be ready," he said.

The schools also act as a magnet for businesses, both helping create new business and drawing others into the state.

But Peterson highlighted the need for college programs to match the future needs of businesses and get educators to better understand business needs.

"Everyone is not speaking on the same terms," he said.

But as Richman said, keeping up with business is difficult.

"I can't keep up with the modern technology you keep creating," he said while looking at the industry leaders.

He highlighted how businesses can partner with universities to keep education costs low by

contributing to specific departments that can produce employees for their companies.

After the meeting, Peterson said he plans to get a group together to figure out how to take Wednesday's discussion to the next level.

He said there is no formal plan right now, but they will look at taking active steps to develop the relationship.