'Companies are fighting over these students' as SD scholarship gives opportunity to avoid dropout, debt

Nov. 3—MENNO, S.D. — Menno High School has one of its larger senior classes in recent memory. And of the 26 members of the class, a considerable portion is planning to attend one the four technical colleges in South Dakota.

"I don't have the exact number right off the top of my head, but it's over half," said Trishia Fischer, school counselor for the Menno School District. "And I have several students who will be applying for the Build Dakota Scholarship."

A classroom of Menno students was the audience for a group of representatives from the South Dakota Department of Labor, Mitchell Technical College and the Build Dakota Scholarship program Thursday morning. Students heard about the opportunities available through technical colleges and the specific benefits of the scholarship designed to get more South Dakota students into the South Dakota workforce.

The Build Dakota Scholarship Program is a statewide initiative created to increase the number of skilled workers entering into high-need sectors of the South Dakota workforce through the state's four technical colleges in Mitchell, Rapid City, Watertown and Sioux Falls.

The program was initiated with $50 million in funding, with half coming from South Dakota businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford and the remaining half coming from the

South Dakota Future Fund,

which began in the 1980s and supports workforce development and technical assistance programs which help train employees, retrain employees during layoffs and support business recruitment, economic development initiatives and research and entrepreneurial activities.

In 2015 the program provided over 1,900 students the chance to graduate without debt in exchange for a three-year commitment to work in South Dakota after graduation. The program covers expenses like tuition, fees, laptops and books, among other necessities.

Deni Amundson, program manager for the Build Dakota Scholarship, said interest has continued to grow as workforce shortages, especially in the field of high-skill labor, continues.

"We're very pleased with where the program is at and the hard work that the technical colleges have put into building their industry partner programs. That has become the true measure of success for our program," Amundson said. "(It also helps to) create this awareness through the collaboration with the industry to try to get more people into these high-need fields, and letting students know if they have any interest in these programs that we are here to make an easier path for them to enter into them at low cost."

Students of any age are eligible to apply for the scholarship, which supports tuition, books and other required program materials and expenses for eligible technical college programs. Recipients in the scholarship must commit to working in South Dakota, in their field of study, for three years following graduation.

The scholarship is a benefit for students, who receive on-the-job training, a full-ride scholarship and the security of guaranteed employment after graduation. The employer benefits include a cost-effective training pipeline, opportunities to connect with potential employees and free advertising on the Build Dakota website.

Julie Fleek, a career adviser with the South Dakota Department of Labor, said the competition among employers for Build Dakota scholars has grown since the program began.

"There is still a very big need. Employers are still very desperate, especially in the skilled trades. They are very much wanting to get in front of students and talk to them and woo them into their fields," Fleek said. "I think the demand is growing, not lessening."

Fischer said she saw firsthand just how in-demand technical school graduates are when two separate companies contacted her about finding students who were interested in going into diesel engine repair. She said she did have a student planning to enter that field, and she let him know that there was a great opportunity if he decided to go forward with his plans.

"He had two companies offer him Build Dakota Scholarship partnerships without him even asking," Fischer said. "I told him, 'OK, I know you love John Deere so I have a John Deere guy here, and then Case-IH wants you over here. Do you understand how amazing this is? You have two people wanting to pay for your college,'" Fischer said.

Robin Jacobsen, a scholarship adviser for Mitchell Technical College, said that is not unusual.

"We have employers already contacting us for the fall for students offering full-ride scholarships. Multiple companies are fighting over these students. Hospitals, different businesses. It's crazy," Jacboson said.

Mitchell Technical College

announced earlier this year

it had enrolled a record number of Build Dakota Scholarships and Double Edge Scholarships, a complimentary scholarship program offered through the school, to the tune of $2.2 million. Nine of those scholarships were fully funded, while the remaining 100 are supplemented by a total of $822,000 in support from industry partners.

Students in Menno got the lowdown on the scholarship and the opportunities that came with it. Amundson and Jacobsen outlined the ins and outs, the programs eligible for the scholarship at the four state technical colleges and the often daunting process of career exploration and weighing education options after high school.

Amundson told them to take a well-rounded approach and look at options from all educational outlets in South Dakota, not just the technical colleges.

"I highly encourage you to visit different kinds of colleges. We have great options in South Dakota for four-year schools and two-year schools. And until you walk through the doors, you don't really understand the differences between what they all have to offer," Amundson said. "Walk into the classrooms and ask what kind of teaching the learning is happening in these classrooms, and is it something you can do for the next one to four years of your life?"

Thoroughly researching career options can help reduce the pitfall of a student attending a college and later realizing that they made the wrong choice, which can lead to dropping out and being saddled with student loan debt. It is a reality that does happen, Amundson said, but good planning can help reduce that risk.

The Build Dakota Scholarship is a good way to minimize that risk, and even former students who have returned to college later in life are taking advantage of it and the technical school experience in general.

"This isn't just with Build Dakota, but it is a big issue our society faces — students who don't properly explore careers before they make a commitment to get training, both at two- and four-year schools. They get a few classes in, or maybe a semester or a year in, and decide this is not a good match for me," Amundson said. "They quit school, and now they have student loan debt and no degree to show for it."

The approved programs that Build Dakota supports will get students into the workforce, Amundson said.

"These are high-demand. If you get a degree in these fields, you will be able to use it and be able to find a job in this field in South Dakota. We also make sure they meet certain income guidelines to get into our program, so hopefully you'll have a very successful career with one of these jobs, as well," Amundson said.

The stop in Menno was part of a larger tour of regional high schools that included Yankton, Gayville-Volin, Harrisburg, Wagner, Armour and Platte-Geddes. Following the morning in Menno, the trio were heading out on the road to Wagner for their next stop.

The opportunities for guaranteed employment in a high-demand and well-paying field are out there for South Dakota students, Amundson said. It's just a matter of getting the word out and encouraging students to consider those options. They may even find themselves on a career path they may not have considered before.

"There really is something out there for everyone. When I say follow your dreams to what's available, if you don't know what some of these things are maybe take a few minutes to find out," Amundson said.

More information on the Build Dakota Scholarship can be found at www.builddakotascholarships.com.