“Career by choice, not by chance.” It’s the motto of Big Lake Schools in Big Lake, Minnesota, some 40 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Big Lake Schools has a program to ensure that one of the career choices to be considered is in construction trades and technology. Matt Vogel, Technology Education Instructor and Work-Based Learning Coordinator, credits his principal, Bob Dockendorf, with planting the seed of the program a few years ago in a meeting with the superintendent of schools at that time. Now with a new superintendent but the same principal, Matt says the first year of the program has gone very well.
“We have seven students enrolled, and they have interest in several areas related to construction,” says Vogel. One wants to be a civil engineer, another is attracted to construction technology (GNSS machine control, site communication, drone mapping, and modeling, etc.), while others want to be operators or service technicians. “Big Lake is a community of working families. These kids go home after school and work on their pickup trucks, snowmobiles, and ATVs. They’re not sitting in the house playing video games.” Vogel himself has experience as an equipment operator at a family sand pit operation in his youth.
And it’s not just the kids who see the value of construction trades; the entire community lines up to support the program. “Veit and RDO Equipment provided compact excavators for students to train on. PCiRoads provided jersey barriers to separate work areas on site. Brenteson Companies helped with permitting, stormwater management, inspections, among similar tasks.” Because the schoolwork site is larger than one acre, the State required full permitting; there was no exemption just because it was a school project. (Veit is a local specialty contractor. RDO is a local John Deere and Vermeer dealer. PCiRoads does concrete, infrastructure and specialty contracting. Brenteson does earthwork, commercial utilities, and selective demolition, among other work.)
Local 49 of the Union of Operating Engineers provided two simulators for classroom use. “It’s hard to get visitors onto active construction sites, and nearly impossible to get minors on site. The simulators have been essential to our training program,” says Vogel. “The 49ers also provide access to online training for students.” While the program is open to all students, the advanced portion of operating equipment on site is open only to seniors. The simulators and online training help younger students prepare for their senior year in the program.
The model for the program is the “3E” plan of Exposure (making students aware of non-traditional career options), Exploration (including 1 or 2 field trips per month), and Experience. The Experience component includes on-the-job training and youth apprenticeships with area construction firms. “In these positions, students are employees of these firms and often receive benefits, such as 401k plans,” says Vogel. “In many cases, employers offer tuition reimbursement for employees having a year or more with the company who want to pursue advanced education in construction and related fields.”
Vogel hastens to point out that Big Lake Schools provides training for construction trades not in place of a traditional career path but in addition to those traditional considerations. “I’m happy to tell students that teaching has been a great career for me and that you can’t get into teaching without at least a four-year degree. We’re not discouraging other career choices but we are helping students realize there is a broad range of choices beyond what they may have otherwise considered and which may be a better match for their interests and personalities.”
Vogel says too often students get into a career because the choice seems inevitable. “Their parents are farmers, or an aunt is a teacher or a cousin is in insurance so by default students take the path they’ve become familiar with their whole lives. That may work out for them, but it often does not. Even if it’s workable, it may not be optimal. We want to help students find their optimal careers.”
In other words, careers by choice, not by chance.