By CHRIS MUELLER, The Daily Republic

MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) _ Chandler Nelson walked into a job interview expecting a few extra credit points, but instead he took the first step toward a career.

Nelson, a 20-year-old telecommunications student at Mitchell Technical Institute from Fort Pierre, began classes Tuesday for his second year at the school. He spent the summer working as an intern for Midcontinent Communications in Rapid City, as part of the school’s workforce recruitment program.

Initially, Nelson only interviewed with Midcontinent Communications for the program because his instructors promised him extra credit if he went. Now, because Nelson was selected for the program, Midcontinent Communications is paying Nelson’s tuition. In exchange, Nelson has agreed to work for the company for a period of time after he graduates, The Daily Republic reported (Tech school grads easily find jobs, get recruited).

“I just really wanted the extra credit,” he said.

The hands-on experience working with the company’s equipment during his internship has better prepared him for his second year of classes, Nelson said.

“I feel like I’m quite a bit ahead of everyone else because they’ve never seen it or worked with it before,” he said.

Despite his experience with the internship, Nelson’s summer wasn’t entirely positive. He was involved in a car crash, which totaled his vehicle. Then, just a few weeks later, a car he bought from his mother was caught in a flash flood. The help with his tuition payments couldn’t have come at a better time, he said.

“I don’t know that I would be able to make it through school without it,” he said.

With a job already waiting for him after graduation, Nelson has already started making plans for the future.

“After three days with the company, I kind of knew this is where I want to spend the rest of my career,” he said.

And Nelson isn’t alone.

Each year, MTI surveys members of its graduating classes six months after graduation in an effort to get information about their employment status. The survey’s results are showing the students who are going into a technical field have no problems finding work _ and in many cases they’re getting hired, or recruited, even before they graduate.

There were 418 students in last year’s graduating class, and MTI was able to get information from 407 of them, according to Julie Brookbank, the school’s director of marketing and communications.

Of those 407 students who responded to the survey, 63 were continuing their education and four were not entering the labor market for other reasons, leaving 340 students actually seeking employment after graduation.

A total of 335 of those 340 students, or nearly 99 percent, were employed when the survey was conducted six months after graduation. And of those 335 students, 299, or 89 percent, were working in the field they trained for in school, and 249, or 74 percent, were working in their field in South Dakota.

That’s higher, though only slightly, than the three other technical schools in South Dakota: Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls; Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City and Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown.

At Southeast Tech, 96 percent of last year’s graduates contacted six months after graduation were employed or continuing their education, according to the school’s website.

At Lake Area Tech, that number was 98 percent, according to the school’s website. And at Western Dakota Tech, 98 percent of the 2012 graduating class was employed or continuing their education six months after graduation.

MTI President Greg Von Wald said the school always works toward providing students with an education that ensures they are able to find jobs after they graduate.

“That’s our main focus in life, absolutely,” Von Wald said. “Our mission is to get kids the technical skills needed to fill workforce demand. And we’re pretty … good at that.”

That often means taking steps to keep all of the classes offered at the school relevant to the needs of the industries students hoping to work in after they graduate, Von Wald said.

“We modify our programs to fit the demands of industry,” he said. “That’s why we have the employment statistics we do.”

For example, Von Wald said the school’s wind turbine technology program has gotten smaller in recent years, and it’s partly because of the uncertainty in the wind industry and its production tax credit.

It’s those types of changes, Von Wald said, that illustrate the unpredictability that goes with being so closely connected with these industries.

“Is there risk involved with this? Yes,” he said. “Is there more risk involved in not doing anything? Yes.”

Von Wald said the school’s power line construction and maintenance program has more than doubled in size due to skyrocketing demand for workers in that field.

“The secret to this is to be tied very, very closely to industry,” he said. “And that’s what I think all four technical schools (in South Dakota) do very well.”

Technical education was a main focus at a series of workforce summits held earlier this year across South Dakota. The summits, hosted by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, were meant to address the shortage of skilled workers in the state.

“Our efforts to address workforce challenges need to be persistent and ongoing, and ever-adapting to changing conditions,” Daugaard said in a speech at the first summit, held in April at MTI.

Daugaard will be back at MTI on Wednesday for one of six meetings to share a final report created as a result of the summits.

Many of the state officials, economic development experts and business leaders who attended the workforce summit in Mitchell talked about changing the perception that a technical education is less desirable than a four-year degree.

The retention rate, or the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year students who continue on to the next year, at MTI last year was 82 percent, according to Von Wald.

“Any student that comes here who starts, we want to see finish,” he said. “Placement is the end goal, but you also need to work on recruiting and retention.”

Von Wald said the school’s workforce recruitment program — the one that led to the agreement between Nelson, the telecommunications student, and Midcontinent Communications — has helped local companies train and hire skilled workers to fill much-needed positions.

“Industry has learned they have to play the game with us or they’re not going to have workers,” he said.

Eight companies with locations in Mitchell are currently taking part in the program, according to Brookbank. They are Hendrickson, Midcontinent Communications, Muth Electric, Paulson Air, Puetz Corporation, Tessier’s, Trail King and Twin City Fan. There are other companies elsewhere in the state taking part in the program, and Von Wald said there is room to expand the program locally and across South Dakota.

Von Wald said the jobs typically filled through the program are those in highest demand, such as jobs in manufacturing and welding.

“If you’re an employer and you want to compete, you now have to do something special,” he said. “You’ve got to invest in their education. That’s the new world of employment.”

Information from: The Daily Republic,