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Developing A Skilled Workforce

After 40 years of work in the food service industry around Huron, Todd Peterson is changing what’s on his menu.

“One day I woke up and said, ‘you know what, I just don’t want to do this food service thing anymore.’”

In a year, he’ll graduate from Mitchell Technical Institute as a Licensed Practical Nurse.  The Build Dakota Scholarship program is paying for Peterson’s education.  It pays for his school costs if he agrees to work in the state in his field for three years.

“It’s absolutely amazing and it’s a great thing for the state of South Dakota that they’re doing this for these skilled positions.”

Peterson’s doing what’s best for him because health care is one of the high demand career tracks in South Dakota.  Others include technology, accounting, and engineering.  Marcia Hultman is Cabinet Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation.  She says many communities struggle with the same problem.

“The businesses, fairly consistently, if it’s in a small town or a large town, are saying that we need a skilled workforce.  So, you’ll hear us going back to that phrase a lot in our conversations.”

Other states are facing similar problems.  As Chair of the Western Governors Association, Governor Dennis Daugaard has made improving a skilled workforce a priority.  During an association meeting in August, Daugaard said a shift in the post-recession economy is creating changes to the demand for skilled labor.

Credit Western Governors' Association
Governor Dennis Daugaard Speaks at 2017 Western Governors' Association Meeting

“But if you look at the 11.6 million jobs that were added since we bottomed out, 11.5 million of them, or 99.9% of them, have gone to workers with at least some college education.  High School is no longer enough.  Especially for the vast majority of high schoolers who graduate with no job skills beyond their college readiness.”

Skilled workers are getting better jobs and making more money.  Julie Brookbank is Associate to the President at Mitchell Technical Institute.  Brookbank says they’ve placed 99% of their graduates over the past five years.  She says the technical education system in South Dakota is important in developing the state workforce.

“We work closely with the Governor’s Office, we work closely with the newly seated South Dakota Board of Technical Education, we work incredibly close with employers all through the state because they depend on the technical institutes to provide the skilled workers that support their businesses, their industries, that do the day-to-day work.”

Credit Governors Office
Job Gains Since Recession

While state leaders focus on adapting the workforce for future needs, South Dakota already has the fifth highest workforce participation rate in the nation.  Sixty nine percent of people over the age of 16 are working.  That’s 10% higher than the national average.  But Labor Secretary Hultman says there’s been a decrease in kids age 16-19 who are working.  She says it’s concerning for a couple reasons.

“Those first jobs teach us a lot of soft skills.  Sometimes they give us a clue to what we want to be and don’t want to be when we grow up.  And it helps businesses have the workers that they need.  I think there are so many positives that come from kids working that we just need to find a way that we can balance modern day teenage life and demand with some learning experience in a workplace.”

The adult workforce is also changing.  Hultman sees more businesses teaching current employees new skills.

“Maybe the technology is changing or the workforce is changing and so they need to up-skill their existing employees.  We’re seeing a lot more interest in that.”

The state is trying to be more responsive to industry needs by getting skills certifications done faster.  Hultman says apprenticeships are another way the state can satisfy demand for skilled labor.

“The great thing about that model is the employer has a worker right away that they’re training right away specific to their industry and their company, and the individual is earning money while they learn.”

The state may also introduce career options for students as early as middle school.  That could include a variety of programs from career counseling to work experience.  Hultman says the state needs more resources for school career counseling services.

“We really need communities to be able to tell their students what opportunities are available in that community, what businesses are there, what industries are there, what kind of skills they’re looking for.  Then when kids are planning for their futures they really know what’s available for them right at home.  Do that community by community but also do it state wide.”

Credit South Dakota CTE

South Dakota’s Career & Technical Education program offers over 700 courses and instructs more than 27 thousand students in grades seven to 12.  The Belle Fourche school district is one example.  Eric Anderson is the career & technical education instructor there.  He says there’s been a shift to career readiness education in schools.

“The focus is now trying to expose kids to the high demand, high wage jobs that are out there that may require a four-year degree or it may only require some specialized training directly out of high school.  The big difference is now instead of a college for all mentality we’re trying to expose kids to more avenues that can lead them to a career that they have a job available and it pays well.”

Credit South Dakota CTE

Anderson teaches several construction and architecture courses at Belle Fourche High School.  Part of that curriculum includes building homes.  The kids build the house and a partner foundation takes care of the rest.  In the process, students get hands on experience and a 10-hour OSHA certification which they can take to a variety of jobs.  Belle Fourche High School has other certifications as well.  Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman says Belle Fourche is showing other communities how to close the skills gap and build housing.

“I think it’s been a really successful model that could be looked at by other communities.”

The program also shows kids a variety of career paths.  Teacher Eric Anderson says too many kids leave high school with a limited understanding of the options for their future.  He teaches kids about the cost of education and the income they can expect from various degrees.

“How do we get kids to understand what they need to do in the future?  Well, we’ve got to provide them with really specialized, very relevant, and very career oriented learning experiences.”

That’s what Todd Peterson says he’s getting in his nursing program at Mithcell Tech.  As he begins his next career in health care, the foundation of new skills he’s learning excites him about the future.

“Even as an LPN, the opportunities are going to be endless as we progress through the years because of the medical field expanding and going in so many different directions.”

Peterson says his new skills will help him keep pace in a field that’s changing rapidly.

If you want to learn a new skill or need help searching and applying for a new job, visit or stop by your local department of labor and regulation office.