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'Construct Tomorrow' offers hands-on experience

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Dover-Eyota senior Blake Badker manned the two stick controls to a simulated excavator, loading a virtual truck with dirt on Friday morning.

"It's a little different than the real thing," he said, "but it's good practice."

The 18-year-old is considering a career as an operating engineer after working summers for the county and got another look at the potential career, thanks to a booth set up by the Operating Engineers Local 49. He enjoys running the equipment, and the career would let him spend time outside, something that's attractive to him. The benefits are a strong draw, too.

"Seeing the beginning, before it started, and where you could take it," Badker said of the building and construction process, is also of interest.

The simulation was part of the "Construct Tomorrow" trade career fair and brought in 500 to 600 students from 12 area high schools to Century High School for a closer look at careers in the trades. Professionals from trades such as operating engineers, electricians and carpenters weren't just manning booths and talking to students — they brought simulators for operating equipment, demos on how to complete a circuit and drywall demos with them.


It's important "to let them know that this is a career opportunity that shouldn't be frowned upon," said Gene Grover, president of the Southeastern Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents 16 local trade organizations. "This is a rewarding career at the end of the day."

Grover pointed to the good pay and benefits, "earn while you learn" training programs that allow students to be trained with little to no cost to them as well as the many openings in the industry.

Plus, college isn't the right fit for everyone, said Nate O'Reilly, a business representative with the Iron Workers, Local Union No. 512, noting students in these careers won't have to deal with the burden of student loans or applying for jobs.

"Another thing we offer is job placement through the union," he said. "There's a huge advantage to that, if a person is laid off, or a job is done, they're not worrying about applications, interviews, updating a resume; they simply contact their union hall, and they're provided with another job."

Most of the careers allow you to "take pride in building something that's going to stand for years," he said, pointing to projects such as the Vikings Stadium, the Stillwater Bridge and the Hilton Hotel project in downtown Rochester.

"Any operator that I know, you talk to their family, they're so sick of hearing, 'Yeah, I was apart of building that, and I built that.' You're building things that will be around forever," said Steve Tuhy, the apprenticeship coordinator with Operating Engineers, Local 49.

And many of these careers require skill sets that are needed locally and aren't something you could outsource, he said.

It's a great career for women, too, said Jessie Oeltjen, a project assistant with Benike Construction. She loves that it's a hands-on career and has found a lot of support with the National Association of Women in Construction, a national organization representing women in construction careers.


"You can be in the field, you don't necessarily have to be swinging a hammer, you could be working in CAD, or in the office, or swinging a hammer — that's totally fine," Oeltjen said. "I like being that advocate, saying yes, women can do this."

It can be difficult to be in a male-dominated industry, said RCTC computer-aided design instructor Jacquie Deml-Mauseth said, but "any girl can do it just as well as any man can."

"For a long time, we had focused on college readiness, and we've really shifted to career and college readiness," said Brandon Macrafic, a Rochester Public Schools principal on special assignment in the area of career and college readiness.

It gave students an opportunity to get their hands dirty and try out different careers.

"If one student today says, 'Holy cow, I like this, and I'm good at it.' It might set them down a pathway that leads to a pretty good career."

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