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Hisel: Workforce shortage is 'wall' blocking development

As the population in Mitchell's immediate trade area shrinks, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce said Thursday that the region is in a "danger zone" that could affect future economic development.

Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Development Corp. and Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, was the guest speaker during Thursday's Rotary Club meeting at the Ramada Inn. He outlined recommendations to address the area's skilled-labor workforce shortage and said the plan was developed after a workforce summit at Mitchell Technical Institute last month.

Hisel said the true Mitchell community includes Davison County and the nearby counties of Hanson, Hutchinson, Sanborn, Aurora and Douglas. Although Davison County's population grew by 763 residents from 2000 to 2010, the overall population loss of those six combined counties was 901 during that span.

Also, the population of the expanded trade area consisting of even more counties around Mitchell fell by many more than that.

Meanwhile, the workforce need has increased over the past two decades.

"The collision between population decrease and job increase has hit the wall," Hisel said.

While much of the rest of the nation continues to struggle with high unemployment since the end of the national economic recession, unemployment has plummeted in the James River Valley as companies hire workers and search for more.

Mitchell's unemployment rate is just 3 percent, the lowest it's been since October 2008.

One recommendation to solve the workforce shortage is a change in how people view higher education.

"There are great-paying jobs in the trades and manufacturing," Hisel said.

"A two-year degree is not a door prize or second place."

Among the other recommendations is a more dedicated workforce recruitment effort in the James River Valley, accompanied by a public relations campaign to attract workers to the area.

Hisel also said more housing and support should be made available to workers who are thinking about relocating to the area.

"It is worthy to tell people that this is a high-quality place to live," he said.

Hisel said the next decade will determine if the James River Valley can become a real population center for South Dakota.

"We have a real opportunity to grow, but it's not clear how we're going to do that."

He said large towns in the valley have generally shown growth, including Aberdeen, Huron, Yankton and Mitchell. But that growth has been offset by population losses in small towns.

He said that trend is akin to the cities cannibalizing the smaller towns.

"That's eating our young," he said.

In Davison, Hanson, Hutchinson, Sanborn, Aurora and Douglas counties combined, the population dropped from 39,146 in 2000 to 38,245 in 2010, a decline of 2.3 percent.

Of those counties, only Davison and Hanson increased in population between 2000 and 2010.

Hisel said Hanson's growth could be attributed to a company in that county that provides home mailing addresses for those who live full-time in recreational vehicles.

Hisel said he regards population growth or decline as the ultimate measure of economic development.

"We've absolutely hit the wall," he said.

"You can't be going down in population and increase the economy in your area."

In a speech at the MTI workforce summit last month, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said about a quarter of the 10,000 jobs listed with the South Dakota Department of Labor are skilled-labor jobs such as welding and manufacturing.

"We need to make sure every South Dakotan knows where the jobs are," Daugaard said last month. "We need to make sure every South Dakotan, especially our young people, know what these jobs are like."

Chris Huber/Republic

Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and Mitchell Area Development Corp. Executive Director Brian Hisel speaks Thursday to the local Rotary Club at the Ramada about the area's skilled-labor workforce shortage.