Webster Recognized for Innovative Workforce Development Efforts
Friday, September 07, 2018
Across the country, rural towns struggle with “brain drain,” the process where young people move to urban areas for college and work opportunities. With innovative thinking and perseverance, small towns like Webster are aiming to reverse this trend.
Webster was recently recognized as Innovative Community of the Year Award by Dakota Resources for its collaborative efforts to improve workforce development.
The initial spark for this success was a community-wide design:SD visioning workshop in 2014 led by Dakota Resources. Thirty architects, developers and other creative professionals collaborated during the three-day event to create 22 vision boards after listening to more than 100 Day County residents share their visions for the community’s future.
Workforce development was one of the primary issues identified in the design sessions. A team of volunteers immediately began tackling the issue by organizing a workforce development summit.
The workforce development summit brought together 75 business and community leaders as well as state and local educators. The partners worked to develop several possible solutions to workforce issues. This included an internship program, new human body systems and biomedical science classes — and ultimately, the expansion of Career & Technical Education (CTE) for Day County students.
Melissa Waldner, executive director of the Webster Area Development Corporation (WADC), notes that a growing demand for skilled labor warranted revisiting the school’s vocational training center that shut down a decade ago due to budget cuts.
“So many of our employers want to expand but they don’t necessarily have the people to do it,” explains Waldner. “They rolled up their sleeves to figure out how to offer local CTE opportunities again.”
The CTE Center is based out of Lake Region Business Center, a large building on Main Street which has been renovated and modernized to accommodate courses in welding, architecture, construction and carpentry.
“It’s actually the same building that the vocational school was in, but the programs and space look nothing like they did back then, says Waldner. “Community members are impressed.”
This effort has been funded in large part by workforce grants from the South Dakota Department of Education. Financial support also comes from area businesses and grants from community foundations at the state and local level.
The private, public and nonprofit partnership is unique. “Without all of us working together, this probably wouldn’t have happened. All of the pieces just fell into place,” Waldner says.
She credits Amy Miller, assistant principal and CTE director for the Webster Area School District, with spearheading these efforts. Miller was recently named 2019 Administrator of the Year by the South Dakota Association of CTE due to her work in this area.
Under Miller’s direction, the school added a career explorations course for high school and for middle school students. “We are now exposing students to these careers at the middle school level before they have defined what they want to be when they grow up,” says Miller.
A new, hands-on internship program at the high school has been very impactful, according to Waldner. The internship program includes both experiential learning and a portion of class time that teaches students necessary professional skills.
Interns are placed in a variety of settings, depending on their interests. They’ve worked at the local auto shops and manufacturers as well as the newspaper and hospital, for instance. WADC has had interns in its office too. Waldner notes she tailors the work duties to each student to make the experience as valuable as it can be.
Developing relationships between the school and businesses has resulted in internship placements as well as tours of local workplaces for both students and teachers, which Waldner says has been a great learning experience. The tours help demonstrate to everyone that there are exciting, good-paying careers available in town.
“We’ve opened up a lot of eyes by showing off local opportunities,” says Waldner. “Often times, students think they have move to a big city. But that’s just not the case. If they do, we invite them to come back and bring their knowledge with them."
Though there are CTE programs like this in bigger cities like Sioux Falls and Mitchell, Waldner points out that having an initiative like this in Webster is unusual.
“For a community of our size to have something like this is really remarkable,” she says. “We’ve been fielding calls from other school districts and we’re hoping this can be a model that others can use successfully as well.
Webster Area Development Corporation is a member of the South Dakota Prairie Gateway, a portal for economic development information in Eastern Rural Communities of South Dakota.