Winter Cattle Journal 2019: New Belle Fourche Career & Tech Center designed as career launch pad |

Winter Cattle Journal 2019: New Belle Fourche Career & Tech Center designed as career launch pad

The newly-opened Career & Technical Education Center in Belle Fourche, S.D.

Last fall as students in the Belle Fourche high school and junior high started classes, they opened the doors of a brand-new $2.9 million facility for the first time. The Career and Technical Education Center is a two-story structure of 100 by 100 feet, enclosing a state-of-the-art welding lab and classroom, a family and consumer science lab and classroom that has a focus on culinary arts, an ag lab and classroom, and a business classroom that has a focus on the hospitality industry and business and accounting practices. The new center complements a previous facility that houses carpentry, woodworking, CAD, architectural drafting and ag mechanics. 

Belle Fourche high faculty oversee six focus areas of technical education, including STEM, construction management and drafting, welding and metal fabrication, family and consumer science, business and computer science, and agricultural education. The district also buses all 125 eighth graders to the center once a day where they can experience each CTE cluster in a six-week rotation. 

Despite shiny, new computer screens and AeroGardens bursting with lettuce and herbs, the building is more than just a new learning center. It also represents a focus shift backward – or should it be forward – to preparing students for skilled trades that are seeing a drastic lack of workers in South Dakota, and the nation. 

Dr. Steven A. Willard is the superintendent of schools for Belle Fourche School District. He points out that what used to be referred to training for “vocational trades” is now called career and technical education, and students are learning skills needed for a rapidly changing work force. Computer driven machines, robotics and drone technology are just a few of the focus areas appearing in what used to be “shop class.” 

“Career and technical education is moving our next generation of students farther than ever dreamed in the past,” says Willard. “They are operating new equipment and learning new skills needed for a rapidly changing work force.” 

Across the nation this changing work force is being felt. Career fields of health care, manufacturing, electricians and plumbers, construction and agriculture, among others, struggle to fill jobs despite relatively high wages and the ability to bypass an expensive, four-year college degree plan. The Association for Career and Technical Education works to promote schooling in these areas and notes the future looks bright for CTE workers, but bleak without them. More than 80 percent of manufacturers say talent shortages will impact their ability to meet customer demand. Approximately 3 million workers will be needed to build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure in the next decade. Almost half of the energy workforce may need to be replaced by 2024, and demand for solar and wind energy technicians will double, all according to the ACTE. 

Mike Rowe of noted “Dirty Jobs” fame made his name showcasing America’s hard workers. These days he works to champion their fields, formerly referred to as “blue-collar.” He recently joined South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to launch a state initiative called Dakota Works. The program will offer limited full-tuition scholarships at South Dakota technical colleges for those completing CTE schooling. Recipients are required to work in their designated field in South Dakota for three years following college. On his blog at, Rowe notes the widening skills gap is a symptom of society’s insistence on promoting one form of education at the expense of all others. 

“This lopsided, cookie-cutter approach to learning has led to a mountain of myths and misperceptions that discourage millions of people from exploring many viable opportunities that don’t require an expensive four-year degree,” he says. “To close the skills gap, we need to affirmatively debunk the misinformation surrounding these opportunities and stop treating whole categories of jobs like vocational consolation prizes.” 

Rowe’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS offers “work ethic scholarships” to learn what he calls “a skill that’s actually in demand.” 

One student interested in a field of need is Belle Fourche sophomore Laney Mackaben. A local ranch girl, Mackaben says she has always been involved in ag and was thankful to see the school bring back the ag-ed and FFA program after an eight-year hiatus. Mackaben now has many opportunities to don her blue corduroy jacket. Besides serving as the FFA chapter reporter, she competes on the agricultural communications and range and land judging teams. She’s also competed in creed speaking, conduct of meetings, vet science and livestock evaluation.  

Mackaben is eying a career in veterinary engineering, which, although requiring substantial education, will also fill a gap in a demanding field. She notes the skills learned in ag classes and FFA prepare all students for future success. “The leadership and speaking really prepare you for the future, no matter what career path you’ll be in,” she says. “The new center is beyond wonderful; I’m fortunate I get to spend time here in this facility. It just makes sense to have an ag program in such a strong ranching community.” 

Austin Bishop is the ag ed instructor at the new center, where he teaches classes and advises the FFA chapter. He says the six-member team of career tech teachers is excited about the opportunities for their students through the center. “If we can prepare these students who aren’t choosing secondary education to hit the workforce coming right out of high school, that’s huge for our society.” 

Bishop says his faculty team works together with the goal of 100 percent placement for every student that walks through their doors. “This means we either want them to have a job waiting, or be accepted into a 2-year or 4-year institution. I think we can definitely achieve that, but it takes a lot of planning and opportunity.” 

The support is currently there from the locals – Bishop says not just for ag and FFA, but he sees it for all six focus programs. 

Willard says the new facility was the end product of school district funds, a grant from the South Dakota Department of Education and a loan from the USDA through Butte Electric. “We are very fortunate to have a school board and community in Belle Fourche that is looking into the future to prepare students for new challenges and growing a skilled workforce for South Dakota.” 

Because of that support, on any given day pupils at Belle Fourche can be found testing recipes, sparking a welder, writing a business plan, or building a full-sized house that will be sold in the community. 

For these students, it’s just another day on their future job.

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