Shlanta: Workforce demand requires helping one student at a time

By Mark Shlanta
CEO, SDN Communications

We’re on a countdown in our household. My son Joe has us in the depths of college campus visits.

You would think we’d have these explorations down to a science with Joe being the third of our four sons who has experienced college shopping. Our oldest charted his path to Dakota State University, our second enrolled at the University of St. Thomas, and now Joe is narrowing his choices.

Three boys, three varied interests and three different campus move-ins in our future. And we still have one high schooler at home who will soon create his own college wish list. My wife, Peg, and I can see the empty nest in our future, but as we reflect on the past, I admit we’re blessed to see our boys’ progress toward degrees.

Like any family aiming to get children pointed that direction, it hasn’t always been easy: moments of trying homework, some not-so-fun parent/teacher conferences and saving for college. Plenty of families go through it, but we need even more Sioux Falls families to meet the challenge of getting their children on track to a technical, associate or bachelor’s degree because Sioux Falls needs the talent.

The challenge of an educated workforce became clearer to me as I finished my volunteer role as co-chair of Forward Sioux Falls. That experience gave me a look at the quickly changing face of Sioux Falls. Culturally and economically, our population is challenged to see a future where their children attain a post-high school degree.

Here’s the statistic I want to you to remember: the U.S. Census Bureau says two-thirds of our community lacks a degree beyond high school, and we haven’t moved the needle in the past decade. We rank below our peer cities in education attainment.

That reality got me thinking about how SDN Communications might, in some small way, change that outlook one student at a time.

I challenged my SDN Communications team to develop a paid internship program for a high school student. Not just any student, but one who:

• Could use an income to assist his or her family.

• Might not be college bound, but has the academic skill to succeed.

• Might even be a first-generation college student.

I wanted to give that student the chance to work side-by-side with SDN’s technical employees, who have degrees and personal stories from Mitchell Technical Institute, Dakota State University or South Dakota State University. I wanted that student to envision a degree in his or her future.

However, I knew it would take more than a work experience. It would also require cash. In addition to the hourly pay, our program includes an incentive-based scholarship.

Like anything you do for the first time, it was a challenge structuring the program and finding our first student. However, I’m pleased to say we put our plan and student to work in January when a New Tech High School senior started a schedule of two to three afternoons per week. His supervisor tells me this high schooler accepts every challenge we give him, and he is now considering enrollment at DSU.

You can learn more about our intern and SDN’s program on our blog.

So while in the Shlanta household we’re on a countdown toward getting all the kids off to college, I’m hopeful that at SDN our high school internship program will be “counting up” the number of successful students working toward a degree and filling the Sioux Falls workforce demand.

Mark Shlanta is the chief executive officer of SDN Communications. He just completed his role as Forward Sioux Falls co-chair where he led two fundraising campaigns totaling $27 million for the city’s economic development.

Shlanta: Workforce demand requires helping one student at a time

Two-thirds of our community lacks a degree beyond high school, and we haven’t moved the needle in the past decade. We are below our peer cities in education attainment. That reality got me thinking about how SDN Communications might, in some small way, change that outlook one student at a time.

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