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Help Wanted

May 16, 2014, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

Help Wanted

Help is wanted in South Dakota.  That's the message businesses and state leaders are sending.

Companies are growing and expanding their workforce. At the same time, more than a quarter of the state's workers are 55 years or older and nearing retirement, according to the South Dakota Department of Labor.

Officials at Valley Queen cheese in the small town of Milbank would love to grow their company. It’s already expanded from 50 workers to 220 in the past 20 years. It needs to be strategic moving forward.

"Our challenge is finding the employees that we need to be able to continue to grow," CEO Mark Leddy said.

The company is undergoing a $20 million system upgrade, which will allow it to produce a new product. In turn that could lead to more customers and more jobs.

"Skilled, technical workers is what we need," Leddy said.

With technical equipment in the plant, Leddy says a person can't just walk in off the street and fill a job. Qualified workers need specific training.

At Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, president Deb Shephard receives requests for more tech school graduates from several employers.

"I would say probably in the last two years, we've been having these conversations a lot and would say in the last six months, almost every week a company is contacting us saying, 'Help.  We're going to have trouble finding labor,'" Shephard said.

Lake Area and other tech schools in the state have grown in recent years. Demand for workers with skills a person can learn at a tech school is driving that growth. Still, the state is behind and needs more skilled, technical workers.

"It's not something where you can snap your fingers and fix overnight,” Shephard said. “For example, if you need an automation technician, someone who's familiar with how to make the machinery in a factory or processing plant work, that takes a minimum of two years of training."

That’s why affected parties need to start recruiting and training future workers now, Shephard said.

The state is sending more money to schools to expose students to career and technical jobs that are available. South Dakota Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman says the workforce needs in South Dakota go beyond those types of careers.

"Industries that are in high demand, high growth also include accounting and finance, engineers, IT, mechanics, nurses, physicians, sales reps, specialty trades, supervisors, teachers, so it's all across the board,” Hultman said. “There are really diverse needs in South Dakota."

Recent Northern State University School of Business graduate Mike Bogdanovich says he didn’t have trouble finding work. The accounting major had a job lined up before he graduated.

“The opportunity is out there if you’re able to present yourself,” Bogdanovich said.

Bogdanovich says he had a harder time choosing a place to work than he did finding employment. He had a diverse background of experience on his resume which could have helped, but the job market in his field likely contributed as well.

Scott Peterson is the director of business internships at NSU. He says accounting is a very high demand field but there are others as well. He says multiple employers in the business sector contact him saying they need more workers.

The requests started increasing, Peterson says, a couple years ago and have continued increasing. And there are other jobs, where workers are in high demand, that require a four-year degree or more as well.

In addition to other efforts, Hultman says the state is working to help fill those needs by getting feedback from communities across South Dakota. Officials will compile information and look for additional ways to help develop the right skillset in the workforce to match employers’ changing demands.

"I think our biggest challenge has been fairly consistent and that's maintaining balance," Hultman said.

Back in Milbank, officials at Valley Queen cheese are being proactive to address the problem locally. They are educating high school students about career opportunities in town and offering scholarships to attract interns and promote the company name in area colleges.

"Particularly in the rural areas of our state, if we want to grow South Dakota, we have to find a way to attract more people here," Leddy said.

Officials at Lake Area Tech say more companies are working with colleges to help recruit students that could be potential future employees. Valley Queen cheese is even developing housing to help attract young people to town for work.

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