It’s hard to measure the shifting landscape of workforce development in South Dakota, but there’s no doubt great things are happening, says Deni Amundson, program manager for the Build Dakota Scholarship Fund.
The program is operated through the South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF) and is doing exactly what it was intended to do when it was started—pairing students with industry leaders to help solve some of the state’s workforce shortages. The fund was launched in December 2014 with a $25 million gift from T. Denny Sanford, and matched with $25 million from the South Dakota Future Fund.
The fund, which awarded scholarships to the first cohort of students in 2015, celebrates five years impacting the lives of hundreds of students this year. This year, the fund surpassed support for more than 1,600 students in the state. Through the program, students receive a full-ride scholarship to one of the state's four technical schools. Both in-state students and out-of-state students are eligible for Build Dakota scholarships, which support tuition, fees, books, and other required program expenses.
The average scholarship is $20,000. In turn, scholarship recipients commit to living and working in the state, in their field of study, for a determined number of years following graduation. The most significant sign of growth in the program is the number of industry partners working with students, Deni says. Currently, more than 200 businesses and organizations have signed on to provide internships, part-time jobs and mentoring while the students are in school, and full-time positions once they have graduated.
The program is doing what it intended to do—developing a pipeline of educated and skilled workers for South Dakota businesses, while also changing the financial outlook for graduates. “This program is just one piece of a larger pie of workforce development, and it’s been a game-changer for our state,” Deni says. “At times, it is overwhelming to see the difference this program is making.”
It’s especially life-changing for the students.
Build Dakota is also changing the public perception of technical schools. “When we first started, we wanted to recognize the amazing things that technical schools are doing, and we have,” Deni says.
The work has been made easier by another important advocate, Deni says, and that’s the SDCF. “They're fabulous,” she says. “They’ve made the whole process easy. Without their expertise, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are.”
Deni hopes that as each student finishes their program, a seed of generosity has been planted. “Hopefully, each of these students will pay it forward in the future.”