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USDA Grant Helps Tribal College Grads Gain Needed Workplace Skills

By Jill Lee, National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Jim Hafer’s passion for teaching is second only to his savvy in leveraging opportunity.  He noticed many retirements at the local power plant and coal mines and saw opportunity for his agriculture students at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Mont. With funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), he decided to train students to fill the upcoming talent gap.

“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,” Hafer said. “My students won’t stand a chance, however, unless they can prove they can do the job, and do it safely.”

To create this program, Hafer combined funding from NIFA with a Rural Development grant to finance a vocational facility, classroom renovations and support facilities. The NIFA Tribal Colleges Education Equity Grants Program helped to pay salaries and develop a welding curriculum.

NIFA’s Equity program strengthens instruction at the 32 1994 tribal land-grant institutions. The funding is used to design curricula, provide equipment, promote learning through real life experiences, recruit and retain students and collaborate with larger schools.

“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.”

As director of the school’s agricultural program, Hafer teaches a host of classes to help students successfully manage tribal lands. 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. He also brought in Kirk Denny, an MSU extension agent and experienced welder. 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 to fill the void of retiring workers and improve his students’ quality of life.

Tyrone Woodenleg, a student at Chief Dull Knife College, works on a project in Jim Hafer’s welding class.

Tyrone Woodenleg, a student at Chief Dull Knife College, works on a project in Jim Hafer’s welding class.

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