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The South Dakota workforce of the future

Dennis Hedge in Sioux Falls
South Dakota State University Provost Dennis Hedge speaks to the 2024 IEEE-USA IWRC Dakotas audience at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls.

South Dakota State University's Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering hosted industry professionals, higher education leaders, researchers and policymakers at the 2024 IEEE-USA IWRC Dakotas to bridge the gap between research and commercially viable products in light of the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act.

One of the biggest challenges small businesses face is finding employees with the technical skills and experience needed to succeed in a given industry. But as South Dakota State University Provost Dennis Hedge noted at the 2024 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) Innovation, Workforce and Research Conference Dakotas (IWRC) on June 11, SDSU is addressing this challenge head-on.

"Indications are quite clear that the future workforce must have a few common traits," Hedge said as part of his speech, titled "The South Dakota Workforce of the Future." "One, have great comfort with artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, while also being data literate. There will also be the ongoing need for lifelong learning and upskilling. Upskilling is critical because change throughout the world continues, and it continues at an accelerated pace."

Hedge, along with other higher education leaders, researchers, industry professionals and policymakers, gathered in Sioux Falls for the 2024 IEEE-USA IWRC Dakotas to meet potential collaborative partners and discuss how the intersection of research and business can contribute to the region's innovation ecosystem.

"Training the STEM workforce of the future today is different from how it was done decades ago," said Sanjeev Kumar, the Jerome J. Lohr Endowed Dean of SDSU's College of Engineering. "Collaborations with industry and opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience at facilities where they will be working after graduation are the key ingredients to make sure graduates are ready to solve tomorrow's challenges today."

Dennis Hedge

One of the primary topics of discussion was the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, which allocates $56 billion for chip manufacturing in the United States with a mandate that the funding must be spread throughout the country. 

"For decades, higher education institutions have been charged with educating individuals to contribute to a modern, contemporary workforce," Hedge said. "But today, many of the jobs that are in high demand didn't exist three decades. Much of the technology used today didn't exist three decades ago, and many of the largest employers in the world didn't exist even just a few short years ago." 

Technical skills and expertise surrounding the use of semiconductors and chips — small components crucial to the hardware of computers, smartphones, appliances and medical equipment — are some of the areas of greatest need to stimulate manufacturing and related industries in the U.S.

"We really feel like we are well positioned to partner and do great work within the space that is the CHIPS and Science Act," Hedge said. "We've developed and invested in a number of facilities, and we also continue to add talent."

Currently, the U.S. semiconductor sector leads the world with 48% of chip use and related sales but is the location of only 6% of manufacturing capacity, trailing Taiwan (46%), China (26%) and South Korea (12%). One of the federal government's primary goals with the CHIPS and Science Act is to significantly increase the number of chips produced by the U.S., and higher education institutions, like SDSU, will play a sizeable role in achieving this goal. By 2032, the U.S. hopes to control 30% of the overall chip market, according to reports.

As Hedge explained, SDSU is poised to help enhance U.S. chip production and manufacturing through a number of areas within the university: advanced manufacturing, advanced materials, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, communications and wireless technology, cyber infrastructure and advanced computing, disaster risk and resilience, energy technology, quantum information, semiconductors and microelectronics.

"Today's students are indeed tomorrow's innovators, creating our collective futures," Hedge said. "At SDSU, we take a lot of pride educating our students through hands-on education to become collaborative problem-solvers. That's one of the directions we have steered our curriculum."

One example of this hands-on learning includes SDSU's NASA teams, one of which competed against Silicon Valley start-ups and venture capital-funded teams to reach the final round of a highly competitive engineering competition.

"This is what we are trying to do, and are working to do, more and more often in our university's curricula, to meet the demands and needs of the workforce today and tomorrow," Hedge said, referring to the NASA teams.

While the NASA teams, led by associate professor of mechanical engineering Todd Letcher, are the most forward-facing examples of hands-on learning in the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering, there are countless examples of this work being done. Take for example the Engineering Expo, an annual event hosted by the Lohr College of Engineering that gives over 50 senior design teams, who often partner with local innovators and entrepreneurs, the opportunity to showcase their projects.

SDSU's NASA teams are some of the best examples of how the university is utilizing hands-on learning to meet the needs and demands of the workforce of today and tomorrow. 

"It's important to create a research and discovery culture within a learning environment, utilizing hands-on collaborative learning and developing problem-solving abilities," Hedge added.

In terms of faculty-level research, SDSU has multiple projects in the Lohr College of Engineering centered around improving the country's electrical grid.

"The electric grid is arguably the world's most complex engineering system, but it’s not immune to or insulated from nature's forces," Hedge said. "Making the energy grid resilient is an important field of work within the Lohr College of Engineering, and we have a microgrid laboratory on campus that allows us to do that work."

But as Hedge notes, with the changing technological and business landscape, SDSU continues to seek guidance and input from stakeholders and industry leaders to meet the needs of the present and future.

"Our goals are to prepare students, invent technologies and solve problems," Hedge explained. "We believe that we are poised to take this challenge head on throughout the university and certainly within the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering — noted for its strong academic programs but also the outstanding hands-on learning that occurs within the Lohr College."

"At the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering, we focus on 'Learn-Build-Innovate,'" Kumar added. "With internationally known faculty and state-of-the-art facilities, we are fully equipped to lead the innovations in this part of the U.S. that supports the CHIPS and Science Act."

Experts from the region also discussed research grants, technology transfer programs, start-up funding, intellectual property, workforce development, and a host of other topics related to inspiring and empowering innovation in the heartland of America.

"There's been a lot of conversation about workforce and workforce development, and truly that's a large part of what land-grant institutions are about at their core," Hedge said. "A key advantage of working with an institution like South Dakota State is that we do (workforce development) in an environment of research and innovation, with extension of educational offerings and research activities in a manner that enhances our communities.

"SDSU firmly believes that the greatest atmosphere for innovation includes partnerships and collaboration," Hedge continued. "More than ever, leveraging collective expertise, whether within academia, industry or government agency, is critical to drive discovery, create and expand the economy, and educate individuals for essential jobs that will define our future."