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MTI has rolled with the changes for 50 years

Mitchell Technical Institute President Mark Wilson speaks during MTI's graduation ceremony on Friday at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell Technical Institute arose from the busy hospital maternity wards of the 1950s.

As World War II ended, American births climbed above a slump beginning before the Great Depression, and then they soared. By 1957, the peak of the Baby Boom, the nation's mothers were delivering an annual surplus of nearly 2 million kids over pre-war levels, and each of those kids needed an education and eventually a job.

"During the 1960s there was a wave across the country to expand two-year educational offerings," said Julie Brookbank, who has been a part of MTI for more than half its 50 years. This past Friday, MTI celebrated its 50th graduating class, and this fall it will begin celebrating its 50th year.

While other states created community colleges tied to university systems, South Dakota chartered four vocational technical schools linked to the school districts in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Watertown and Mitchell.

The community of Mitchell jumped in feet first, building what is now the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy, adjacent to and currently associated with Mitchell High School.

Mitchell Vocational Area Technical School opened on Sept. 8, 1968, with 21 faculty, nine programs — including secretarial, automotive and building trades — and 220 students. Its first 44 students graduated in spring 1969.

Growth was good through the '70s, '80s and mid-1990s, as MTI strategically added programming for power lines, culinary, satellite communications and computers.

"We positioned ourselves well," Brookbank said.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the state under then-Gov. William Janklow began paring vocational programs. Mitchell's school, renamed Mitchell Technical Institute in 1992, would close its automotive and welding programs but managed to preserve culinary.

MTI would graduate student No. 10,000 in 1997, but by then growth had stalled, resulting in a period of introspection near the dawn of the new millennium.

Plans for a new MTI campus south of Interstate 90 sprang forth in 1998 from a Vision 2020 task force that included representatives of business, economic development and education. It met plenty of skepticism. MTI had purchased pastureland for the new school at a good price, Brookbank said, but without state funding for construction and with little ability to borrow money, the reaction was "What are you thinking?"

Despite that, a smaller version of the current Technology Center opened on Spruce Street in 2003. The Legislature later improved access to bonds, and MTI expanded further. The Campus Center opened on Spruce in 2011 and the Trades Center in 2013, bringing all MTI programs together on one site.

The expansion was fortuitous, enabling MTI to accommodate rocketing enrollment growth of 45 percent between 2008 and 2013, as laid-off workers flocked to upgrade their skills during the Great Recession. The school was also able to use $10 million in recession-related grants to expand programs and update equipment.

MTI hit into a perfect storm, Brookbank said. It had a beautiful new campus in a visible location just as people were reconsidering what it means to seek a technical education.

Students with bachelor's degrees weren't necessarily finding jobs in their field, she said, and workers in a variety of trades were nearing retirement age. South Dakota had always struggled to find skilled workers, she said, and MTI had been able to place 90 percent of its graduating students over the past 16 years—98 percent or greater over the past five.

"Over the past five or six years," she said, "a lot of parents have become very supportive of a technical education," which is now seen as a good value—a quicker road to better salaries while incurring less debt.

MTI doesn't look at its two-year degrees as the end of the road, Brookbank emphasized. It works with a lot of colleges to ensure its credits can transfer.

"It's not: 'Come here, learn, and then stop,'" Brookbank said.

MTI enrollment peaked in 2016 at 1,274. Its economic footprint has expanded to 125 employees, including about 70 instructors.

Nobody can predict the future, but MTI stands prepared for change.

Over the past 50 years, MTI graduates have risen to leadership roles in businesses across the community. In 2017, 1970 graduate Dick Muth, CEO of Muth Electric, gave the school a $1.3 million donation, its largest ever.

MTI supplies workers for power generation and transmission. It has expanded health care and commercial construction programming. It recently started a truck driving program, an area of high demand.

"We're very nimble," Brookbank said. MTI adapts quickly to changing technology and workforce needs. "We've got a good formula," she said. "We've been doing things well for 50 years."