High school students dig into transportation construction careers

student weldingMore than 100 students from five area high schools got an up-close, hands-on look at transportation construction jobs during MnDOT Construction Career Day on May 15 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

During the daylong event hosted by CTS on behalf of the MnDOT Office of Civil Rights, students rotated in small groups through nine demonstration stations focused on highway heavy construction. These included planning, design, grading and base materials, iron work, carpentry, maintenance, safety, bridges, and labor.

Each group of students, guided by chaperones from their school, had an opportunity to hold or try on equipment, climb aboard heavy machinery, assemble models, and test their skills in a few different work simulators. A variety of transportation construction professionals—including representatives from several MnDOT offices, contracting and consulting firms, and trade unions—offered insight, encouragement, and practical advice at every station.

“This has been an extremely valuable event to me personally,” said Cole, a Roosevelt High School student interested in carpentry. “Not every kid is going to be able to get out here and see this, and that’s honestly, I think, why a lot of kids just don’t really get the jobs that they want.”student driving simulation

In 2018, 73 percent of Minnesota firms surveyed said they were having a hard time filling salaried and hourly craft positions, according to a survey commissioned by the Associated General Contractors of America. MnDOT especially has been challenged in recent years to replace retiring workers.

“Baby boomers are retiring and we need to develop and train the workforce of the future to step into these positions,” said Kim Collins, director of the MnDOT Office of Civil Rights. “The workforce of tomorrow also will be very diverse, so as an industry we need to foster work environments that are inclusive, where everyone can perform at their best.”

CTS associate director for engagement and education Gina Baas added that many of today’s youth, especially those with diverse backgrounds, are not aware of the opportunities within the transportation industry. “Events like Construction Career Day help make those vital connections between young people and transportation agencies and contractors,” she said.map

Gary Larsen, apprenticeship coordinator for the Laborers Union, attracted the attention of several students at his station with a compelling pitch about the benefits of a career in the trades—good pay, good benefits, and doing something you like right out of high school.

Among the several heavy construction and maintenance vehicles on hand for the event, MnDOT’s Alex Bruch and his colleagues let a fully rigged snowplow with state-of-the-art sensors and controls do much of the talking. Bruch, a Metro District coordinator for the maintenance decision support system, guided several students into the driver’s seat for a glimpse of the world at the wheel of one of MnDOT’s most recognizable and important vehicles. The moment perfectly capped the snowplow training scenarios many of the students had just experienced in MnDOT’s simulator trailer. 

“It’s not always obvious that highway heavy construction trades are both innovative and technology focused,” Collins said. “We wanted to share a hands-on experience with the students so they could see how we use technology in some areas of our work.”

Roosevelt High School career and college center coordinator Eric Rodgers noted how the outing gave students an opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with companies and labor unions and helped them realize viable next steps after high school. “Roosevelt offers a lot of different programming that supports and directly connects to what our students are experiencing here,” he said.