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Stevens FORWARD! -- Building a career in Stevens County

By Philip Drown

For the Sun Tribune

A fairly common scenario often observed at the University of Minnesota, Morris involves two students, a year or two apart in age, who are dating. One graduates, but does not want to leave the area until their boyfriend or girlfriend graduates. Such a student may find temporary employment in the county during that interim period. When their "significant other" completes their education, the two move away together after finding jobs in another community.

To Stevens FORWARD!, this scenario presents a terrific opportunity to connect talented people with area employers, while adding to the population of the county community. If those students could be reached during that interim period and connected with a job that matched their skills and interests, area employers would benefit and workers would have jobs that offered them more satisfaction with their life in the community, thus providing more incentive for them to stay.

Encouraging these connections is the goal of Stevens FORWARD!'s Destiny Driver, which states that "By 2010 at least 10 UMM graduates will gain professional employment in Stevens County that leverages their talents and provides opportunity for career advancement".

Gary Donovan, Director of the Career Center at UMM, has taken a particular interest in this goal and is working with Stevens FORWARD! to see it achieved.

"Because of UMM's strong general education program and the strength of the individual majors, the students bring a plethora of functional, transferable skills to the marketplace that can be used in many different industries," Donovan said.

Donovan, who had been following the activities of Stevens FORWARD! from the beginning, was approached by members of the initiative in the Fall of 2008 and asked to take a leadership role as a champion. He sat down with these members of Stevens FORWARD! to better understand the origin of the driver.

"The driver, in its origin, was to try and create employment possibilities in Stevens County that would attract students to UMM or encourage them to stay in the county," Donovan said.

One of the key priorities at present is to get information on exactly how many UMM graduates are currently finding employment each year in Stevens County. According to Donovan, this is an unknown right now, but the information is necessary for measuring progress, or even having a clear-eyed view on the situation.

UMM Chancellor Jacquie Johnson agrees that the first priority, and one way UMM can help, is to find that baseline information.

"It would be really good for us collectively to have some information and knowledge about the current number of graduates that we have here," said Johnson. "I have a feeling we would be pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have graduated and gone on to work in the community."

According to Johnson, there are two benchmarks needed to move forward with this Destiny Driver. The first would be identifying how many UMM graduates currently live in the county. The second would involve looking back a few years at graduating classes and tracking how many graduates remained or returned to live and work in the county.

"We need to have that information," said Johnson. "It gives us something to map progress against."

Donovan said he is already seeking data about the number of UMM alumni who live in the area. Once the baseline information is available, a group of champions can create solid strategies for how to approach achieving these goals.

Donovan, who also serves as Chair of the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, feels that the destiny driver should be broadened in scope.

He believes future recruiting and connection efforts could be expanded to target people who are able to meet high demand and hard to fill positions in the county.

"We could still meet the spirit of the initial driver and also help with the other specific needs that employers might have in this area."

He also believes it is important to look beyond just UMM students and do more to target people who grew up in the county but moved away, and entice them to return.

We're not only trying to attract the 22 and 23 year olds who attend UMM," said Donovan. "It's also about attracting those who have been out a while to come back. How we might do all this is to be determined yet."

Donovan described strategies that have been done in other communities that he has observed. For example, economic developers in one county collaborated with the school districts to market job opportunities to graduates. They sent a flyer that outlined job opportunities with an accompanying letter to alumni that carried the message "Have you ever thought about coming home?"

Other ideas being considered include strengthening mechanisms available to encourage local entrepreneurship, as well as capitalizing on building momentum in the bio-fuels and renewable energy technologies. According to Donovan, these areas are ripe for creating jobs and channeling talented people into them.

"The next steps will be to identify other people who want to work on this driver," said Donovan, who is actively seeking a group to serve as champions. Included on the list of potential key players are the Chamber of Commerce, Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, high school principals and career counselors, UMM, and area employers.

"We would like to work with employers in the county, especially human resource people who do hiring," Donovan said.

According to Donovan, the broad categories of employers in the county they expect to work with include agriculture, including bio-fuels and bio-technology, medical and healthcare, education, manufacturing, and retail.

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at:, or by phone at

(320) 287-0882