Training for Tomorrow: Developing a Native Workforce

Volume 26, No. 2 - Winter 2014
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At the 2012 South Dakota Society of Human Resources’ leadership conference, Dr. Goss Sidney, a faculty member at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, spoke about the mobility of the workforce in the Northern Plains.

During the presentation, he noted that the American Indian population in both North and South Dakota has significantly increased while the White population has decreased. However, despite such demographic shifts, Native people experience a shorter life expectancy compared to their non-Native counterparts. Such changes raise questions about workforce development. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have a pivotal role to play in this process. And they have a tremendous opportunity to alter the socioeconomic landscape throughout Indian Country.

The growth of the Native population in the Dakotas should prompt industry and lawmakers in those states to look into leveraging the workforce available on Indian reservations and in Native communities. The statewide unemployment rate in North Dakota and South Dakota is 2.6% and 3.6%, respectively (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013a). However, due to a historical legacy of colonialism, second-class citizenship, and institutional discrimination, American Indians residing in these states have some of the highest unemployment rates in the United States (Figure 1). In North Dakota, the unemployment rate for Native people is 23.1% and in South Dakota, it’s 28.5% (American Indian Population and Labor Force, 2014).


Figure 1: National unemployment rates for American Indians and Whites, 2007–2013. Source: Austin (2013).

Many political pundits and economists feel that an unemployment rate above 6.7% is unacceptable (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013b). Algernon Austin, a research associate and former director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Program, recommends that there is a need for policies designed to target Native communities, in an effort to help resolve this high unemployment rate. In a recent study, Austin looked at the unemployment rate by region for 2007 and 2013. He discovered that unemployment rates for American Indians actually increased during the six-year interval.

There are two ways to decrease unemployment on the reservations and to leverage the future workforce there. Either businesses need to come to the reservations, or people need to pursue jobs in other communities. Businesses that have opened on reservations have had some success, but others were not as fortunate. The federal government has provided several grant opportunities and programs such as the Empowerment Zone. In addition, many American Indians have moved to nearby communities to search for jobs and careers. While federal grants and individual initiative are helpful, the problem of high unemployment remains.

And there is no silver bullet. Workforce management can provide some solutions to these looming challenges, however. North Dakota in particular is experiencing an oil boom. Many individual job seekers have moved to the state from all over the United States. Since there is such workforce demand, why hasn’t there been a greater effort to hire American Indians? Such efforts can be constructed through partnerships between Indian organizations, state officials, businesses, and tribal colleges in the Dakotas. The essence of these partnerships is to create a culture of hiring local human capital. These partnerships could facilitate the creation of many jobs for Native people in both states. Corporations want a prepared local workforce. State and tribal institutions can work together to prepare that workforce through vocational and higher educational institutions. Partnerships between socially responsible companies and TCUs especially can help Native students develop the skills that are needed to be prepared for current and future jobs. In forging such partnerships, stakeholders should recognize that workforce readiness is based on the interdependency of the workers, the educational institutions that train them, and the business enterprises that employ them. In order to achieve the mission of lowering the unemployment rate on Indian reservations, these three components need to work together. TCUs, state universities, and vocational institutions need to provide the skills for current and future job opportunities. For example, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology embraces the motto, “We Invent Tomorrow,” underscoring how the institution not only looks at what is needed of technology today, but also looks to the future. Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge reservation in southwestern South Dakota, uses the phrase “Rebuilding the Lakota Nation through Education” as part of its mission statement. Hence, in order to build and prepare the workforce needed in the Dakotas, education is front and center.

This education needs to be aligned with the needs of the reservations and beyond, so that Native people are ready for jobs at the local, regional, state, and national levels. For example, in Rapid City, South Dakota the organization Rapid City Economic Development partners with Western Dakota Technical Institute, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and other higher-education institutions to build programs based on the needs of companies that are located in the region. Unfortunately, there have not been many partnerships between such organizations and TCUs. Creating partnerships between TCUs in North and South Dakota and the private sector can help employ many American Indians.

Economists, policymakers, educators, and our leaders can talk about unemployment indefinitely, but the issue will remain unsettled until something is done about it. There is broad agreement that unemployment on the reservations has caused many problems, chief among them poverty, which continues to drain limited tribal resources. If we can take effective steps to address this problem, with TCUs positioned to play a leading role in the effort, we can profoundly shape the economic future of Indian Country. It is essential for this problem to be solved in a responsible manner in cooperation with tribal, state, and business organizations. Until this is done, Native job seekers need to use the limited resources available to them, such as education and training, to prepare for the jobs on the reservations and beyond. After all, it is the role of TCUs to rebuild and strengthen tribal nations.

Ahmed Al-Asfour is chair of the Business Department at Oglala Lakota College.


American Indian Population and Labor Force. (2014). 2013 American Indian Population and Labor Force Report. U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs. Retrieved from http://

Austin, A. (2013). High Unemployment Means Native Americans Are Still Waiting for an Economic Recovery. Retrieved from

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013a). Databases, Tables, & Calculators by Subject. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Retrieved from

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013b). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from


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