Zumbro-Mazeppa High school senior Cole Poncelet stepped up to the virtual welder, angled the tool and went to work. The high score at the moment was 88 — set by Alisha Goettle, a third-year apprentice with Ironworkers local 512.
Ponclet scored an 87.
The virtual welder was one of several hands-on tools and displays at the Construct Tomorrow trade fair Wednesday at the Mayo Civic Center.
About 1,200 students from 30 Southeast Minnesota schools attended the event. Representatives from 12 trades handed out information and talked to students about their work. Many of them brought equipment to let students try their hand.
Goettle said the virtual welder is usually a draw.
“I think sometimes they want to do it because it’s like a video game,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a competition.”
Poncelet said he has some experience welding from classes at school.
“I’ve done it for a while,” he said. “It’s just something fun to do.”
This is the first year Rochester Public Schools have partnered with Minnesota trade fair organizer Construct Tomorrow to put on the event. The last two years, district staff members and volunteers organized similar but smaller events intended to give students a glimpse at building, manufacturing and construction trades. The first year, about 600 students attended. Last year, about 900 students from the region attended the crowded event at Century High School. This year, Constructing Tomorrow helped with planning, registration and logistics of the event at the Mayo Civic Center arena.
“I think we were pretty maxed out last year,” said Brandon Macrafic, Career and Technical Education Center at Heintz.
Construct Tomorrow staff work to put trade career options in front of students around the state, said Carisa Johnson, Construct Tomorrow event coordinator.
“College fairs are the norm for most students,” she said. “The trades don’t get invited to college fairs.”
You also don’t find students wiring a light switch at college fairs.
Dylan Himle, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 343 in Rochester, walked a group of Century High School students through the process.
“Let’s see how you did,” he said as he plugged in the four-bulb apparatus.
The first light, on a switch and wiring assembled by Century senior Cordell Kinyon, went on.
“There you go,” Himle said. “You’re an electrician.”
Kinyon said he likes working with wiring and installed a radio in his truck himself.
Himle said the display helps students get a taste for what they like to do and what they’re good at.
“I could talk about the trade and hand out some pamphlets,” he said. “But once you get your hands on it, that’s when you know, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
Alec Harpsted, of the Carpenters Union local 322 in St. Paul, agreed that hands-on experience is a good way to engage and teach students.
“We give them a rough course,” he said while demonstrating another virtual welder.
Macrafic said the new event partnership worked to help make the event bigger this year and that organizers are already looking at ways to grow it next year. A bigger event could help fill a growing need for skilled trades labor.
“We know what the need is from an employment standpoint in the trades,” he said. “And we know we have students who have the passion.”