- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Courtney Werner knew high school wouldn’t be the end of her education.

First came cosmetology school. Then paramedic training. Today, the 2009 Britton graduate is pursuing a nursing degree at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls.

“Everyone always told me I should be a nurse,” Werner said.

South Dakota education officials project a growing need for workers like Werner in the state. The Board of Regents last year adopted an ambitious goal of preparing students for a future in which nearly two out of three jobs in the state require more than a high school degree.

It’s a bold projection based on a single academic study from Georgetown University, and it’s likely to influence education policy decisions in the state from kindergarten to college.



An Argus Leader Media analysis of federal employment data, though, shows demand for degrees in South Dakota is growing only slightly. Most of the jobs projected to be added in the state between now and early next decade won’t require more than a high school diploma.

There’s no question higher education unlocks opportunities for higher pay and career advancement, but overstating the necessity of a college degree could add to the state’s student loan debt and brain drain.

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Attention-grabbing goal

The South Dakota Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s six public universities, set a goal in October of seeing 65 percent of the state’s under 35 workforce achieve some type of post-secondary education by 2025.

As of 2014, about 37 percent of working-age South Dakotans had an associate’s degree or higher, according to the American Community Survey.

Mike Rush, the Board of Regent’s executive director, described the goal at the time as something that should grab the attention of state leaders.

The post-secondary target has since found support from the South Dakota Workforce Development Council and, informally, within the state’s Department of Education. Regents presented the goal last month to the Board of Education, which sets K-12 policy in the state.

The goal is based on a 2013 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that offers a state-by-state forecast of job growth and educational requirements through 2020.

In South Dakota, job growth in health care, social sciences and other STEM-related fields are projected to increase demand for degrees. The state’s need for educated workers won’t be limited to college graduates, though. The report’s definition of post-secondary education includes industry-specific licenses and certificates.

“A lot of people when they think of college, they only want to focus on bachelor’s degrees,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist for the Georgetown institute and co-author of the study. “We don’t. We talk about middle-skill jobs and middle-skill competencies that are highly valued in the economy.”

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Middle vs. low-skill jobs

Even with a broader definition, the Georgetown study and Regents goal appear to contrast with official data and projections from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

An Argus Leader Media analysis of BLS data shows that two-thirds of jobs in the state do not typically require more than a high school degree. The share of jobs in occupations that typically require more education has risen only slightly over the last five years and is projected to remain flat into the next decade.

By 2022, the number of registered nurses employed in South Dakota is projected to grow by almost 1,500 from to a decade earlier. That’s good news for nursing students like Werner. In raw numbers, it’s more projected growth than any other occupation in the state.

After registered nurses, none of the occupations projected by BLS to be in the top 10 for growth in South Dakota typically require a college degree. They include food preparation, retail sales, customer service, carpentry and child care.

The projections aren’t perfect, but they’re widely used by colleges and the Board of Regents to plan and petition for new degree programs.

The Georgetown authors acknowledge the gap between their conclusion and the government projections. They argue that the federal labor data, while “useful and highly regarded,” also “systematically under-predicts the demand for post-secondary education and training.”

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Student debt and brain drain

What should state education officials - or students facing post-secondary decisions - make of the various projections?

“The risk at having an under-educated population is much higher than an over-educated population,” Rush said. “The sophistication of the workforce is only going to get more and more complicated, and education will never be not valuable.”

But it’s also not free.

Nationally, borrowers hold about $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Bryce Love doesn’t want to add to that figure.

Love, 17, knew as a high school freshman he wanted to work under his uncle, who owns two Sioux Falls restaurants. He graduated from Washington High School on June 5. He was back in the restaurant the day after, learning from his uncle and working to start his own business someday.

“I figured I can learn for free instead of paying huge payments and student loans,” he said.

Despite the pressure he felt from some to go to college, his plan is to learn on the job, not in the classroom.

“I know a lot of successful people … my uncle’s one of them. He never went to college.”

Beside student loan debt, another risk is brain drain. if the state produces more college grads than its employers can hire, South Dakota could lose people to out-of-state jobs, said Craig Johnson, executive director of the University Center in Sioux Falls.

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Err on the side of over-educating

Mike Allgrunn, associate professor of economics at the University of South Dakota, said it’s risky to place too much emphasis on any one prediction. In this case, the Regents’ goal doesn’t even have a clear starting point. While the U.S. Census tracks degree holders by region, there isn’t a measure of other training included in the goal.

“We don’t even know there’s a gap,” Allgrunn said.

Marcia Hultman, South Dakota’s secretary of labor and regulation, recognizes that most workers in the state don’t need more than a diploma.

Still, the state needs to expand its labor pool for certain higher-paid occupations with growing workforce needs. South Dakota will need more civil engineers, nurses, electricians, physicians, welders, truck drivers, and teachers in the next five to 10 years.

For Mark Lee, director of public affairs at the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, the risk of planning around an estimate that’s too low is more dangerous than overestimating the state’s education needs.

“Financial capital will follow human capital every time,” Lee said, adding that the state’s businesses will rise to accommodate a highly educated workforce.

“The reality is, if we educate or we set up our systems to educate to today’s needs, we will forever be behind.”

Follow education reporter Megan Raposa on Twitter @mlraposa.

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Growing jobs

Top projected job growth by occupation in South Dakota 2012-2022.

1. Registered nurses

2. Food preparation

3. Retail salespeople

4. Customer service reps.

5. Carpenters

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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