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SD's Daugaard kicks off initiative to address workforce woes in region; U.S. Labor Secretary joins effort

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Gov. Dennis Daugaard speaks to press Thursday morning while U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta looks on in a briefing room at the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls. Sara Bertsch/ Forum News Service2 / 3
Gov. Dennis Daugaard addresses the crowd Thursday morning gathered for the workforce development initiative opening workshop through the Western Governors' Association at the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls. Sara Bertsch/ Forum News Service3 / 3

SIOUX FALLS — The state of South Dakota's workforce and education relationship was put in the spotlight Thursday, as governors across the country banded together to discuss development difficulties.

With Gov. Dennis Daugaard at the helm, the Western Governors' Association began its first Workforce Development Initiative workshop Thursday at the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls, diving into workforce issues.

The association represents governors of 19 western states and three United States-flag islands, becoming a tool for state leaders in tackling issues of policy development, information exchange and collective action.

But the numerous governors and representatives had their attention focused on one issue: workforce development.

"Finding qualified workers is probably the most constraining element in business success," Daugaard said. "... Just ask any employer in South Dakota and they'll tell you workforce is a concern if not the concert they face. And this is an issue nationwide."

With dropping graduation rates, increased job openings and a lack of a skilled workforce, the group spent hours speaking on efforts and possible solutions.

And to highlight the national importance of workforce in the western region, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was present, speaking on two major initiatives in which he hopes the association will participate in, including the skills gap and excessive licensure.

Hoping the western states can become "a model" for the nation, Acosta said the first initiative focuses on the skills gap across the country, which has led to six million jobs going unfilled. In the western states, he said, there were nearly two million.

To fill these millions of jobs, which range from manufacturing, construction and health care industries, Acosta said stakeholders need to focus on "demand-driven education."

"Education that teaches the skills demanded by the workforce," Acosta said. "Education and businesses need to talk to one another. They need to communicate so the education can focus on the skills that lead to jobs."

An executive order has been issued by President Donald Trump, Acosta said, that focuses on creating more of these jobs through apprenticeships and developing usable skills.

But the skills gap was just one issue, as Acosta said another area to be addressed is excessive licenses. Nearly one in four Americans are required to obtain an occupational license to work, according to Acosta, which reduces jobs and creates "hidden costs."

"The American workforce is our greatest asset. Americans are hard working, creative and entrepreneurial," Acosta said. "By integrating skills in education at all levels, we can work to ensure that americans have a career of their choosing. By removing unnecessary licensing, we can create more job opportunities."

And with the start of this workforce conversation, Acosta said the western states are already on the right path. He added that western states have a "very strong economy," including an average unemployment rate below 4 percent, with South Dakota at an "incredibly low" rate below than 3 percent.

"Governors, in so many ways, set the tone and know the needs of the state workforce. They know what works and what doesn't work." Acosta said. "... What works for one state in the east does not work for one state on the plains or for one state in the west. Every state is different."

The two-day workshop included several roundtable discussion, examining different aspects such as aligning state resources, industry leadership, retainment and career preparation.

Daugaard emphasized that the conversation is just the beginning, and before solutions can be brought to the table, data gathering needs to be completed.

And after approximately a year of gathering data from South Dakota and the region, Daugaard said some potential solutions may lie in the high school levels of school districts.

"There is a disconnect between the academia aspect and the people in seats as opposed to people doing things that earn competency and provide opportunities for hands-on exposure to what they considered relevant experiences, real world work," Daugaard said.

To combat this disconnect, Daugaard is hopeful in the creation of apprenticeships for South Dakota students, providing critical skill training, which will in turn better improve graduation rates, which sits at an "unacceptably low" 60 percent.

"The goal of the initiative is to create enhanced career opportunities for students, graduates and displaced workers," Daugaard said.