OTHER VOICES: Workforce issue deserves focus of S.D. Legislature

January 13, 2018 GMT

As South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard prepared to deliver his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday, it was widely reported that his agenda for the 2018 legislative session would include a focus on workforce development, a critical issue for workers and employers.

In recent years, he has proposed and succeeded with bold proposals like raising the sales tax to increase teacher pay in 2016 and creating the Bridge Improvement Grant and infrastructure program in 2015. But unlike those programs, he offered no funding or funding sources to bolster a workforce that is unable to fill open jobs throughout the state, especially in construction and manufacturing.

Instead, the governor asked high schools to step up by encouraging more job shadow programs and internships. He also said he would seek a new law that creates a professional licensure reciprocity compact with other states provided they are willing. He also touted the state’s Career Launch program, which offers an average of $500 per trainee to businesses that participate, according to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development website.

In addition to the lack of a funding plan to improve workforce development, the governor made no proposals to cap or reduce tuition costs for students at a time when college enrollment is flat lining in the state. The rising costs at the state’s technical schools are also a barrier for high school students from low-income families or for those in search of a better-paying job.

Fortunately, there’s still an entire legislative session ahead where lawmakers, particularly leadership in the Senate and House, can pursue workforce development with more vigor and find the funding needed to make an appropriate investment in the state’s economy and future.

Governor Daugaard’s desire to get high schools more involved has merit. Lawmakers can improve upon that by requiring technical training in fields designated as important by the state. Apprenticeship programs could be made part of the high school curriculum where students earn credits toward graduation just like when they are taking a history or math class.

If tuition and fees at universities and colleges are going to continue to rise nearly every year, it is especially imperative that students begin to develop workforce skills before they graduate from high school. Otherwise, they may never get beyond the menial labor stage and won’t be capable of making the contributions South Dakota needs to be competitive with other states. If the workforce continues to lag, it becomes difficult for the state to retain and recruit quality employers that also can help keep more of the best, brightest and most motivated students here where their families would like them to live.

As Gov. Daugaard winds down in his final year as governor, it is time for the Legislature to take the lead role in passing legislation that creates opportunities for state residents and meets the needs of employers that provide these important jobs.