Sen. Thune makes listening stop in ‘second home’ Mitchell
Worker shortage, Mitcehll Technical College success among issues discussed during community visit
MITCHELL — Sen. John Thune made a stop in Mitchell on Thursday afternoon where he took time to address the Rotary Club of Mitchell as well as take a tour of Mitchell Technical College during a break from the current congressional session in Washington, D.C.
“It’s always good to be in Mitchell,” Thune told members of the Rotary Club of Mitchell. “I have fond memories of Mitchell and still think of it almost as a second home from back when I was growing up. We spent a lot of time here because of family.”
Thune spent the afternoon interacting with local constituents, answering questions put to him as well as asking a few questions himself. He spoke of his connection to the community - his grandfather and great uncle started Thune Hardware before his family moved to Murdo, where he grew up - and the importance of getting out and interacting with the public face-to-face.
“There is no substitute for it. You cannot just kind of assimilate without getting out and touching the ground and talking to people and looking them in the eye,” Thune told the Mitchell Republic. “So the interactions you have and the things you learn? It keeps you grounded. To me, you can read about it, you can study it, but there is no substitute for getting out and seeing things up close and personal.”
Thune spoke over the noon hour and gave a brief rundown of some of the happenings in Washington, D.C. He had a number of major issues he was keeping an eye on and to which he was seeking a reasonable solution.
Included among those issues was inflation. It has become a factor in most parts of everyday life recently, and it’s hurting people across the country by cutting into their bottom line.
“It’s hitting everybody, but particularly agriculture producer input costs are dramatically going up. Whether it’s fertilizer or diesel fuel or equipment, we’re seeing upwards of 20% to 30% increases in input costs, which means the margins are going to be a lot tighter this year for farmers and ranchers,” Thune said. “So when they go into the planting season in the spring, I think that’s an issue.”
Thune said it’s vital to keep inflation in check and not see a return to the inflation problems of the 1970s and early 1980s, where inflation rates reached serious highs. One way to do that is to keep spending down, he said.
“We can’t have a sustained period of the type of inflation we saw when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. I am focused on that,” Thune said.
Maintaining a steady flow of people into the workforce is also a major concern for Thune. Worker shortages are affecting industries across the board, from retail to manufacturing, and it’s having an impact on some businesses' ability to offer services or goods.
“It doesn’t matter what sector of the economy you’re talking about, it’s everywhere. We see it a lot in the travel industry during the summer, but whether it’s ag workers, manufacturing, retail or service, you’re seeing it everywhere,” Thune said.
Thune said the COVID-19 pandemic had a hand in creating that situation, with many employees quitting in the wake of the pandemic’s arrival and others taking early retirement. Many of those workers have not returned to the workforce, Thune said, and it will be crucial to make sure industries see a steady stream of fresh workers to keep up with demand.
Some of the problems with the workforce issue are also tied to poor immigration policies, Thune said. He would like to see more effort in bringing in foreign workers legally to help ease the worker crunch that has taken hold while also keeping the southern United States border secure and safe.
“I think creating a pipeline of people who can come here to fill jobs either on a guest worker basis or some kind of temporary status could be at least a partial solution to that. So we continue to push for the expansion of the ( H-2A and H-2B visas ) program, for example, and we will continue to work with that,” Thune said.
Following his noon hour with the Rotary Club of Mitchell, Thune got an up-close and personal view of various classes and labs at Mitchell Technical College. After an hour-long guided tour of several areas of campus, Thune said he was impressed with the programs at the school and their ability to get skilled workers into the workforce in short order.
Thune estimated it had been three or four years since he had last been on the campus of the school, but the work being done never fails to impress.
“It’s incredible, all the expansion and all the things that are happening here," Thune said. “The neat thing that is happening here is when you talk to these students you realize just how marketable they are. Some of these people are one year into their program and they already have multiple offers from companies for when they get out.”
Thune cited the wind turbine technology program as just one example of a program at the school that is on the cutting edge of technology and demand.
“They just really need those guys. They have an expertise and when they come out of here with that experience it’s incredibly valuable. I think that’s why there is so much competition for their skills. I hope that continues, and I hope that our economy continues to benefit from the really good work that Mitchell Tech does in getting these young people ready,” Thune said.
Thune had an informal sit-down meeting with school officials prior to his tour of the campus to talk briefly about what was happening on the Mitchell Technical College campus. Mark Wilson, president of Mitchell Technical College, said the meeting was a casual discussion that centered on some of the success of the school as opposed to any political concerns or issues.
“It was more of an informative visit,” Wilson said. “(We talked about) our placement being at 99% and above, as we like to say, and how our students get an education here with a 1-year or 2-year degree. Our employers really like having our graduates, so that’s been a great thing.”
Having a United States senator on-hand in person is a great opportunity to talk about what Mitchell Technical College is doing to help address that workforce issue, Wilson said. It’s also a chance to introduce students, faculty and staff and their efforts to the lawmaker.
“It’s just a great opportunity to showcase what Mitchell Tech is all about. It gives our students a chance to meet with the senator, but the best was to see how our faculty and instructors interacted with him and the passion they demonstrate for their program. It’s great to see,” Wilson said.
The visit to campus was a great way to end his day in Mitchell, Thune said. He was slated to head to the western part of the state for more public engagements on Friday, but is expected to head back to Washington, D.C. soon to continue the legislative session.
He said he’d return to the east coast with the people, communities and issues of South Dakotans on his mind as he continues to work on behalf of everyone in the state. He said that was why it is important to make these kinds of stops - to listen, to learn and to let folks know he is out there working for them.
“It’s a chance for me to hear from them what’s important. These people are very plugged in and dialed in on the economy, and many are involved in the community and business and civic side of what’s going on in Mitchell. I try to open it up to hear what’s important to them and what are some of the things they’d like to see their leaders address at the federal level,” Thune said.