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NIFA Education Grant Changes Employment Outlook for Tribal College Grads

Media Contact: Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

By Jill Lee
July 15, 2010

Jim Hafer’s passion for teaching is second only to his savvy in leveraging opportunity.  Hafer, an agriculture instructor at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Mont., noticed a gathering storm of local retirements forming at both Pacific Power and Light’s cogeneration plants and at Western Energy’s coal mines. He made a decision. His students could—and would—fill the coming talent gap caused by the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation.

Hafer, with funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the help of a colleague at Montana State University (MSU), would train them.

“Our college serves 275 students from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as well as students from adjacent, non-reservation communities,” Hafer said. “The Cheyenne average salary is $12,000–$15,000 annually. The starting salary for a welder is $45,000, with experienced welders earning $65,000. My students won’t stand a chance, however, unless they can prove they can do the job, and do it safely. If we can help them do that, then the local unions will give them an opportunity to complete their job training.”

Students agree. Al Holdstheenemy, 47, a janitor at a local high school has excelled in the program.

“The course has me thinking about small projects I can do, maybe even another career field,” he said. “There a lot of stuff that I never knew was out there until I took the welding class.”

Holdstheenemy says he plans to take more courses in the future and gain even more welding expertise.

Younger students are also attending this class. Tyrone Woodenlegs, 28, works for the tribal natural resource department.  

“I was interested in the welding class because I feel that it is a skill that I could definitely use.  Whether it be for a hobby or even a career. And so far I have enjoyed the class,” he said.  I feel that I am getting the best instruction, and I feel very comfortable and safe with the class environment.”

To create this program, Hafer combined funding from NIFA with a USDA Rural Development Grant, to finance a 3,000-square-foot targeted vocational facility, classroom renovations, and support facilities. The NIFA Tribal Colleges Education Equity Grants Program helped to pay salaries and develop a curriculum for Hafer’s welding students.

“NIFA’s program helped our college leverage its first-time USDA Rural Development brick-and-mortar monies,” Hafer said. “The Equity grant gave me the first step on a ladder of credibility and confidence that let me take the next step to complete this project.”

The Equity program promotes and strengthens higher education instruction in the food and agricultural sciences and other educational opportunities at the 32 tribal colleges that are designated as 1994 land-grant institutions. Project directors at these schools can use the funding to design curricula, enhance their own skills, promote student learning through real life experiences, provide instructional equipment, recruit and retain students, and collaborate with professors at larger schools.

As director of the school’s agricultural program, Hafer teaches a host of classes to help students successfully manage tribal lands. Animal husbandry, range management and soil science are all part of the curriculum.  When he offered the welding class in the fall of 2009 it filled up in days—the school had to open up another section to accommodate student interest. 

That’s when Hafer brought on Kirk Denny, an MSU extension agent and an experienced welder, to help him teach. Denny is an agent with the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, a NIFA grant program that funds the work of 1890 and 1862 land-grant institutions as they assist tribal communities on a host of issues, including the competitiveness and sustainability of rural and farm economies.

Denny is not only a good instructor—he’s also a role model for his students.

“I learned how to weld in high school,” Denny said. “I worked as a welder during my last three years of college.  Welding not only paid for my education, it’s what kept me in school. It wasn’t about having honors classes, it was about having a skill that I could always fall back on.”

Hafer is counting on USDA’s grants programs to help provide that skill—and opportunity—to both fill the void of retiring skilled workers and improve his students’ quality of life.

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