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Deni Amundson

Deni Amundson, program manager, Build Dakota: SD scholarship gets technical about labor shortage

PIERRE, S.D. – If you build it, they will come. That’s an iconic line from “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner’s classic baseball film.

And it’s also what South Dakota is doing to fill the workforce gap.

The state has built a scholarship program that turns high-needs industries into a worker’s field of dreams.

Booming economies in South Dakota and the Midwest mean states are plagued with unfilled positions, especially in skilled labor. South Dakota has gone through these growing pains for years, leaving fields such as construction, manufacturing and health care with hundreds of open positions.

More than half of the available positions don't require four-year degrees, but do require technical skills. That’s why in 2014, South Dakota state leaders decided to create the Build Dakota Scholarship program to promote technical education to address South Dakota’s workforce shortage.

A $25 million gift from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford and a matching contribution from the South Dakota Future Fund combined to create the Build Dakota Scholarship program. The program offers full-ride scholarships for high-needs programs at all four of South Dakota’s technical institutes.

Build Dakota has three main goals: change lives with opportunity, keep workforce and youth in South Dakota and connect businesses with skilled workers.

The scholarship covers tuition, fees, books and other resources for students going into high-need fields. Recipients commit to working full-time in South Dakota for three years after graduation in that field.

For students, the prerequisites are not strict. Potential students need to have a high school diploma or GED, apply to a high-need field and fill out a FAFSA form. Unlike many post-secondary school scholarships, students of all ages are eligible to apply.

So far, almost 900 people have been given the chance to work toward degrees without having to borrow any money to cover program costs.

The program has helped technical institutions in South Dakota buck the nationwide trend of shrinking enrollment. Since 2013, national enrollment at two-year public schools fell 11 percent, while South Dakota tech schools grew their numbers by 3 percent.

Programs at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D., and Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., are running at full capacity and looking to expand.

Aaron Jacobs, foundation director at Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City, S.D., says the scholarship will grow South Dakota for years to come.

“Build Dakota fills a need, but it’s not about churning out employees as fast as possible,” said Jacobs.

“It’s about providing a life-changing opportunity for students to find a career they love. It’s a great example of businesses and education coming together to work out a solution.”

Industry partnerships not only give students the keys to a new career, but also let those students take their new position out for a test drive. CTE classes, part-time jobs and internships help students gain on-the-job experience.

Through the Build Dakota Scholarship program, more than 180 businesses have committed to paying a portion of students’ program expenses. The students get a free tech degree, valuable on-the-job training and mentorship while attending school, part-time employment and a guaranteed job after graduation.

In turn, the employer gets a trained worker ready to enter a field facing critical workforce needs.

As proof of the program’s success, industry funds for the scholarship have spiked from $147,081 to more than $1.4 million in four years.

Scott Knuppe, Build Dakota board member and an employee at Caterpillar Inc., believes the scholarship is a great way for companies to upskill current employees. “It’s another tool to internally improve your workforce,” said Knuppe.  

"Businesses have jumped at the chance to invest in workers they know and trust.”

Over its first three years, Build Dakota has developed a talent pipeline for employers with critical workforce needs. Debt-free and ready to roll, Build Dakota scholars are making an impact right out of school.

Creating a dynamic tech education program in South Dakota isn’t that different from making a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield. If you build it, they will come.

Deni Amundson

Program Manager

Build Dakota