Tina Lugo, left, shakes hands with Kendra Ringstmeyer of the Department of Labor during a graduation ceremony for Department of Corrections precision machining graduates on May 8, 2023 in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
There are nearly 3,500 people in the custody of South Dakota’s prisons.
Most of them will walk free.
In the space of a year and a half, the state has trained and certified 57 of them in precision machining, welding and construction technology – three high-demand fields in South Dakota.
DOC graduate breakdown
The grant-funded program that got them there is boosting the state’s skilled workforce, but it also serves as a model for future collaboration between the DOC, Department of Labor and the state’s trade schools, according to Angela Smith, the DOC’s associate director of education and programs.
The DOC and Labor Department hadn’t worked together directly to train and funnel inmates into outside jobs until the collaboration launched in the spring of 2022. So far, the partnership has connected inmates to training from Lake Area Technical College for precision machining, Southeast Technical College for welding and Western Dakota Technical College for construction technology.
“I think cosmetology is a viable option for us,” Smith said. “Lake Area offers a cosmetology program, so we’ve talked to them about that. And then Southeast Tech has mentioned wanting to expand into electrical and plumbing.”
With additional grant funding, Smith said, there would be plenty of opportunities. Those opportunities will likely stay squarely within the realm of trades, Smith said, because “the trades have the needs, and the trades have the jobs.”
The Labor Department’s involvement helps move the certified inmates from the classroom to the job site through meetings before and after release, interview training and resume help.
“You have a whole bunch of people that are cheering you on, that are praying for you and praying for your success outside of these walls,” Labor Department Workforce Development Director Kendra Ringstmeyer told the graduates. “Take what you learned from this experience and apply it to life.”
Apprenticeship, skills training a focus for Noem
It’s a model endorsed by Gov. Noem, who encouraged Monday’s graduates in Pierre to build and lean into supportive relationships once they enter the workforce. Less than two weeks earlier, she announced a significant funding boost for on-the-job training programs in the workplace.
“If you focus on doing things for other people, you’ll be healthier physically, mentally, spiritually,” Noem said. “If you remember that your purpose in life is to find ways to do that, you’ll find the benefits will come back in a big way.”
After the press conference on the $7.9 million apprenticeship cash infusion on April 25, Noem told South Dakota Searchlight that job training and connections with willing “second chance” employers are the clearest paths to a new life for inmates.
“Where we have the most opportunity is how we’re training individuals that are currently in our system to have a more stable environment when they come out,” Noem told South Dakota Searchlight after the April 25 event. “And that means working with an employer through work release and getting them mentors that can walk alongside them, so that when they are released they can go right to work.”
Malloy Electric in Sioux Falls has taken advantage of both the DOC training program and the recently announced apprenticeship incentives. Chris Houwman, president and CEO of Malloy, said the precision machinist he hired from the first graduating class at the women’s prison has already moved on to a project management role.
The machining skill was critical, but the graduate’s ability to learn on her feet and earn the trust of her coworkers put her in a position to do more for the company.
“There’s talent everywhere, and if you’re willing to take the time to develop that talent, you’re going to be successful,” Houwman said. “You’ve got to be willing to look at alternative places that you maybe hadn’t looked at before.”
It’s gratifying to help former inmates, Houwman said. Even before the machinist program launched, the company had hired former penitentiary inmates. Gainful employment helps improve an ex-inmate’s chances of avoiding the unhealthy habits that might send them back to prison, but Houwman said the certification training boosts the odds even more.
“If we can continue to teach inmates to have a skill, a technical skill, the chances of them going back to prison drop dramatically,” Houwman said.
Malloy is also working to pull together an apprenticeship program in precision machining, a move that the state will now offer up to $15,000 for. Given how much demand there is across multiple job types for workers with that skill, Houwman said, it’s worthwhile for the company to train people in-house.
“Currently, it’s the most difficult position to fill, because a precision machinist is so versatile,” Houwman said.
Tina Lugo, one of Monday’s graduates, said she hopes to jump right into the field once she’s released over the summer.
Lugo hopes to land in Sioux Falls and start working toward a better life for herself and her 4-year-old daughter. She’d like to spend a few years in machining and work her way into a role working directly with people.
“I spent the last 15 to 20 years in customer service and hospitality and things like that, so hopefully maybe I’d be able to transition over to an HR position,” Lugo said.
There aren’t many opportunities to learn at the women’s prison, she said, so she leapt at the chance to sign up for the machinist course. She met all the requirements: She had a high school diploma, was within a few months of release, and had a good record behind the walls.
Lugo described herself as “a big nerd” who was ready to tackle the classroom and hands-on learning involved in the machining certification program, although she was “a little intimidated” by trigonometry at first.
“I was actually one point off from testing out of the math portion, and I was like ‘you gotta be kidding me,’” Lugo said. “But that worked out really well, because I understand algebra a lot better now.”
Lugo gave a lot of credit to her instructor, Darrel Grohs of Lake Area Technical College. Grohs came out of retirement to help build the program after a Christmastime call from Diane Stiles, the school’s vice president of academic affairs.
Grohs had been teaching for well over a decade at various tech schools at that point, but what he heard in the pitch for a position in the DOC partnership was an opportunity to offer guidance on a higher level.
“Being a man of faith, this was a path I’m supposed to walk,” Grohs said. “That’s kind of why I started it, but the other part of it was OK, can I help somebody? Can I use what I have and the talent that I have for this to maybe help some of these ladies get on on a different path?’”
For some, he said, the path will involve a move directly to the workforce. Others, like one of his first DOC students, will transfer their semester of credits to another course of study at one of the state’s tech schools. Given that Lake Area doesn’t disqualify students with a felony record, Grohs said, “now is the opportune time to make a choice to maybe get some further education.”
It’s all been fulfilling for Grohs, who saw most of the six graduates weep as Lugo talked about their shared accomplishment on Monday. Her voice cracked at times as she talked about how she’d enrolled in four different institutions of higher learning in her life, but hadn’t earned a certificate until this year.
A few weeks ago in a mock job interview, she was asked about her greatest accomplishment. On paper, she answered, “I don’t look like I have much,” but she hopes she’s had a positive impact on the lives of those around her.
“Now, with this, I’m able to put down on a piece of paper that yes, I do have something worth showing, something I can pass along to my little daughter and be proud of,” Lugo said.
More graduation photos
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