What's Welding Got to Do With It? A Billionaire Gives Big for Technical Schools

The billionaire credit card king Denny Sanford is an intriguing philanthropist. On the one hand, he's a Giving Pledge signatory who's given away at least $1 billion over the years—which is why we recently named Sanford one of the "most generous philanthropists in finance." On the other hand, not a lot of money appears to be flowing from his foundation, and Sanford often funds causes from his own personal bank account. 

What's clear, though, is that Sanford has a passion for education and youth, and is liable to give a lot of money if a cause interests him enough. Well, Sanford recently partnered with South Dakota Future Fund and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to establish a new scholarship program at South Dakota area technical institutes called the Build Dakota Scholarship Program.

A combined $50 million has been put into this scholarship program, with $25 million coming from Sanford to facilitate education in areas such as welding and building construction. The South Dakota Future Fund gave an additional $25 million. The collective money is expected to provide "300 full scholarships annually in each of the first five years, beginning in the Fall of 2015. From 2020 on, an endowment will continue to award approximately 50 scholarships per year."

Sanford was born in the Midwest and has spent a good part of his life in the state of South Dakota, purchasing a small bank which has now become part of his United National Corporation. Sanford has been active in the state for years, giving, among other things, $70 million toward construction of an underground physics laboratory in South Dakota, and giving millions towards a regional hospital center which now is named Sanford Health.

But this is the first time we've seen him give big to help build job skills. What's the deal? 

Well, clearly, Sanford has gotten hip to one of the best kept secrets in the fields of workforce development and higher ed: that there are loads of blue-collar jobs available that pay middle class wages, at least for young people with the right skills. 

According to Jeff Holcomb, President of Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, a lot of people don't realize how lucrative an education in, say welding, might be: "Graduates from STI’s Mechatronics program, which trains its students on all the various aspects of equipment used in manufacturing, are starting at $40,000 to $50,000 a year."

Wow. Not bad at all. That's more than a lot of young people with far pricier educations are making, even after they snag their master's degrees. 

Like many states, South Dakota has a shortage of workers who can do specialized skilled jobs: "Some businesses have been unable to expand because of the lack of workers," says state Economic Development Commissioner Pat Costello. What a shame, especially given how plenty of kids with useless bachelor's degrees are living with mom and dad. 

It's easy to see how a scholarship program like this would help encourage more students to attend the various technical training schools in the state, undeterred by cost. It's also easy to to see what's in it for industry, and we write often about how companies are increasingly using philanthropy to address their human capital needs in different states and regions. 

Build Dakota scholarship will be available to both in-state and out-of-state students. Scholarship awardees will have to commit to stay in South Dakota to work in their field of study for three years.

So far, the Build Dakota Administration Board approved the following high need, industry areas for the Build Dakota Scholarship Program: "Welding, Precision Machining, Automotive, Practical Nursing, Building Trades/Construction, Energy Technician, Engineering Technician, Medical Laboratory Technician."

Those sound like solid jobs to me. And, no worries, plenty of college students will still be digging into topics like literature and political science in the great state of South Dakota.