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Johnson: MTI can help fix workforce shortage

Sen. Tim Johnson looks at MTI's welding center with Mark Gerhardt, vice president of industrial relations, left, and Vicki Wiese, vice president of academics, Thursday afternoon at MTI's Trades Center in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 2
Senator Tim Johnson views a lab area at MTI’s Trade Center Thursday. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 2

Inside Mitchell Technical Institute’s new Trades Center, U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson saw signs of an answer to South Dakota’s workforce shortage.

Johnson, D-S.D., on Thursday toured MTI’s Trades Center, which was completed this fall at a cost of $18.5 million. The Trades Center is a 150,000-square-foot, two-story building that houses two divisions within MTI’s academic program: agriculture and transportation technologies, and construction and manufacturing technologies.

“I noticed, downstairs, there is a welding program,” Johnson said in an interview with The Daily Republic after his tour at MTI. “South Dakota needs — everybody needs welders badly.”

South Dakota’s businesses have been routinely hobbled in recent years by a shortage of skilled laborers, most evidently within the manufacturing industry. Johnson toured the labs on the first floor of the Trades Center, many of which housed the types of programs he later said could help fix the state’s workforce shortage, including the welding program.

“That is one of many programs that are quality programs,” he said.

With the completion of the Trades Center, MTI is now, for the first time, situated entirely south of Interstate 90 in the southeast corner of Mitchell. In 2001, ground was broken on the first new MTI building south of I-90, the Technology Center, located about 2.5 miles from MTI’s original campus near Mitchell High School. It was the first step in a moving process that spanned 12 years and saw six buildings constructed at a total cost of $46.4 million.

On Thursday, Johnson recalled when MTI was still located at its original campus.

“This is a vast improvement,” Johnson said. “It’s modern, it’s next to the interstate and it’s impressive beyond belief.”

Julie Brookbank, MTI’s director of marketing and communication, recalled another visit Johnson made to MTI about two years ago, shortly after the school’s Campus Center opened.

“I remember walking into the commons area, looking over this plot of ground and explaining to him how this building would come next,” she said, referring to the Trades Center.

Johnson, 67, is still hampered by the lingering effects of a brain hemorrhage he suffered in 2006, which has limited his mobility and occasionally makes it difficult for him to speak. As Johnson toured MTI’s Trades Center on Thursday, he did so aboard a motorized scooter.

Johnson has announced that he is not seeking re-election and plans to retire once his term expires at the end of the year. Johnson commented Thursday on his approaching retirement.

“As a Democrat in a deeply red state, it’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “I owe the people of South Dakota a lot for that.”

Johnson said he plans to spend most of his time in South Dakota after he retires, so he can spend time with his children and grandchildren.

“It’s cold here, but it’s cold also in D.C.,” he said.