As COVID slows flow of foreign workers, BHSU experiments with a faster-track tourism degree

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A common observation Thursday at the South Dakota Tourism Advisory Board meeting was the difficulty businesses now have finding help, with the shortage made worse by a global coronavirus pandemic that’s helped make temporary foreign workers unavailable.

Meanwhile, Black Hills State University saw its enrollment of students seeking bachelor’s degrees specializing in tourism and hospitality management fall into the low teens in recent years. Now the university’s Rapid City branch campus is trying a different approach: A 16-month program that emphasizes 10 to 20 hours of internship work per week as a route to an associate degree.

The director, Hans Nelson, said he has five students enrolled so far in the new program. His goal is 40 by the start of fall semester. He’s found recruiting is difficult because high school students tend to think of tourism as only restaurants and lodging.

Nelson told the board that universities generally don’t give students enough opportunities to intern and find out early in their classes whether they like working in their potential fields. The BHSU associate degree requires 600 hours of internships over the course of four semesters. “This is an opportunity to get a taste of it,” he said. “It’s not a traditional classroom setting.”

State Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen suggested that people attending the meeting invite Nelson to speak to their local and regional organizations. Hagen said Nelson will be featured at South Dakota’s 2022 tourism conference in January. “So we get the entire industry listening to what you’re trying to accomplish at B-H,” Hagen said.

South Dakota tourism businesses are hiring few if any foreign-visa workers this year because of restrictions by the governments in the native countries as well as the U.S., even though tourism bookings are up in many parts of South Dakota 35 to 65%.

“The challenge we’re having is staffing,” said board member Caleb Arceneaux, the CEO for Liv Hospitality that has eight hotel properties in Rapid City and five in Deadwood.

Another board member, Ted Hustead of Wall Drug, said the difficulty will be serving more visitors with fewer employees. “It’s a problem everywhere in the country,” Hustead said about the lack of help. “Hopefully we can come up with the numbers we need to give people the experience. They’re coming.”

Board president Kristi Wagner of Whitewood said a lot of rural communities are turning to volunteers to fill the gap because the youth workforce isn’t there like it was a generation or two ago. People are passionate about where they live, she said. “We’re going to provide the best – whatever it takes.”

Hagen said the shortage is national. “I wish there was an easy answer. There just isn’t.” Kids are different now, busy with summer sports. “There are so many different facets of this huge need,” he said.

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