White Bear Lake, Minn. —White Bear Lake Area Public School senior Abigail Lillo loves taking on a challenge. A naturally inquisitive personality, Lillo always welcomes the chance to learn something new.
A standout student, Lillo enters her senior year with few classes left to take but a lot of ideas about what her future will look like.
In her free time, Abigail Lillo is passionate about creating artwork. She’s received statewide recognition for some of her projects. PC: Emily Sweeney
“Senior year I’m most looking forward to unlocking new electives, like the final automotive courses,” Lillo said. “I was running out of options after I had taken all of the small engines, technology and construction courses.”
Lillo describes herself as an energetic personality and prefers classes that allow her to build, create and work with others.
“Sometimes I’m loud but I’m just excited; I love to lighten the mood of a room,” Lillo said. “I’ve never been afraid to try something new and I think that’s why I have been involved with so many of the activities middle school and high school had to offer. I did track and field, show choir and participated in newspaper.”
Summer Jobs and Future Plans
As junior-year summer approached, Lillo knew how she wanted to spend her time.
“I work year-round at a restaurant in downtown White Bear, but I made sure my schedule this summer would be flexible around my internship with the Minnesota Trades Academy,” Lillo said.
Through her internship, Lillo spends 20 hours a week with the White Bear Track 2 Minnesota Trades Academy (MTA) team, where she explores careers in construction and visits union training centers.
The MTA paid skills internship is one of many programs organized by the Construction Careers Foundation, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit supported by trade unions, construction companies, the State of Minnesota (DEED), and a growing list of Minnesota school districts. Construction Careers Foundation creates pathways for young people throughout Minnesota to connect with apprenticeship opportunities in Minnesota’s construction trades.
“I guess you could say I’m back for more,” Lillo said. “I participated in MTA last summer too but during the pandemic my experience was totally different than this year.”
Last year, Lillo worked on a variety of group projects with her MTA peers, but they were masked the entire day and followed social distancing precautions. Also, the training centers that interns usually tour had different or disrupted tour times because of the pandemic.
“This year we not only toured the unions, but training centers, too,” Lillo said. “I loved last years’ experience, it made me really consider the trades as my future career path. This year, I’m taking time to talk with apprentices and educators and decide what trade appeals to me most.”
Lillo added that her parents have been supportive of her initiative to explore careers in construction, and they believe the apprenticeship pathway supports her active lifestyle.
“I have a few carpenters in my family,” Lillo said. “My dad is super outspoken in his support for me. More women are entering the trades; He sees I’m passionate about this work and he says he can’t wait for me to pick my career and get my training education paid for by a union.”
Construction Courses Should Be Essential Courses
As Lillo grew more excited about what her future could look like in the trades, she reflected on how MTA and her high school automotive and shop courses prepared her for this route.
“I moved around a lot growing up, from California to Oklahoma and most recently, Wisconsin,” Lillo said. “You don’t realize how lucky you have it with schools that host construction programs and courses. In my last school we didn’t have any electives to explore like this — then I joined MTA and I know so much more about the trades —from what they do, to how they are different. I welded this summer and operated a crane – that’s not something normal 17-year-olds get to experience.”
Lillo added that reenrolling in MTA for a second year has given her clarity about what she wants her future after high school to look like.
“I know I love being a part of a team and doing hands on work,” Lillo said. “There’s no way I can work in an office sitting for a long time. A construction apprenticeship is higher education because I am learning skills for my career, and they will pay for me to get the training I need.”
For more information on the Minnesota Trades Academy visit the Program page on ConstructionCareers.org. To read more Rock-Solid Success Stories like Lillo’s click here.
Brooklyn Center students participating in kit one. The students build birdhouses to take home. PC:Brooklyn Center
“The idea is that no matter what subject a student engages in, there will be a STEAM component,” Holter said. “Whether it’s a science-literacy connection or technology-music, we’re being intentional about where subjects overlap.”
In a typical school year, Holter sets up field trips, helps facilitate hands-on learning opportunities with working professionals and brings in inspiring demonstrations to spark creativity.
Holter discovered Learn2Build (L2B), a program that exposes middle-school students to career possibilities in Minnesota’s construction trades. She connected with Learn2Build Director Mary DesJarlais and sought a partnership with Brooklyn Center Community schools to introduce elementary and middle school students to careers in construction through fun, in-class take home projects.
“During the pandemic, Learn2Build couldn’t provide in-person experiences to students, so we created five take-home construction kits. These kits provide hands-on, exploratory learning experiences, where the final result is a construction-based project the student can keep,” DesJarlais said. “These kits were so successful that we’re now offering them to elementary and middle schools, where teachers can facilitate the activities.”
Holter and Brooklyn Center Community Schools partnered with Learn2Build to organize kit experiences throughout the school year for 5th and 6th-grade students.
“We have the entire 5th grade — that’s 150 students participating in the kit projects,” Holter said. “We’re excited to launch this program to bring in new kit experiences monthly and watch our students practice STEAM and obtain hands-on skills, while learning about creativity in construction.”
The Learn2Build sessions will run through March, over which time students will be exposed to a variety of construction careers, materials, tools, and build electrical circuit boards, geodesic domes and learn to tile.
“I’m thrilled this partnership resulted in a series of kit events,” DesJarlais said. “Making the kit experiences regular, gives us the opportunity to showcase the value of construction through many lenses to youth. We want to inspire students to be creative and practice the hands-on skills they are good at.”
Elk River, Minnesota — Morgan Atkins, 22, is an avid muskie angler and daughter of the Training Director for the Minneapolis Electrical JATC. When hemophobia (fear of blood) prevented her from becoming a nurse, and a distaste for student debt dissuaded her from pursuing an accounting degree, she enthusiastically followed in her father’s career footsteps.
Today, Atkins is entering the third year out of a five-year program as an electrical apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 292 (Minneapolis).
“I asked my dad, ‘Well, dad, what do you do again?’ Because I know he didn’t have to pay for schooling and actually got to work while he was in high school,’” Atkins said. “So, I just applied to the program. I didn’t pass the aptitude test right away, so I pre-apprenticed for about 10 months. Then I got in and I have loved it ever since. I feel like this is where I want to be in life.”
Atkins appreciates that her values of safety and attention to detail are shared by her union and are consistently reflected in their work.
“We want to make sure that we do quality work because that’s what separates us from non-union workers,” said Atkins. “There’s a lot of pride in our trade to make things look pretty. Any non-electrician might look at a project and just think, “Oh yeah, that’s pipe there.’ But another electrician will appreciate the little tricks that make a quality project what it is.”
As a woman in the trades, Atkins has found a place in the group Sisters in Solidarity within her union, although she notes that the work environment is incredibly supportive.
“Everybody is building towards the same goal, and there are great guys that are going to be sticking up for you if you need it. My coworkers definitely have my back,’ said Atkins.
“You feel very needed,” she said. “We’re building our communities and our cities up bigger and stronger. I don’t see any future where you wouldn’t need an electrician.”
One of Atkins’ favorite projects that she has worked on so far is the new Public Service Building in downtown Minneapolis. Although Atkins is only in the third year of her apprenticeship, she still got to play a big hand in the project.
“It was really cool working on that project because it started from nothing, and then next thing I knew we were working on the ninth, then the 10th story,” said Atkins. “I piped all the circuits up in the ceilings, and I did all the devicing for the sixth floor. Now I feel proud looking up at the finished project knowing that I got to be a part of it.”
Building the Life She Wants
Atkins has even bigger dreams for the projects she will work on in the future. Electricians will play a big part in the development of clean energy systems, and Atkins anticipates using the skills she is learning at work for her life at home as well.
“I really want to work on a solar farm project and see how that works, because another dream of mine is to have my own hobby farm that runs entirely on clean energy,” said Atkins. “The ultimate goal I feel is to build a life that I want: the American dream. With this career, I easily see that happening. I’m going to be able to have a hobby farm, and my own lake property, and when things need to be fixed, I can do it on my own.”
Interested in more information about a rewarding career in construction through apprenticeship?
The Construction Careers Foundation helps connect young people like Morgan Atkins with registered apprenticeships in Minnesota’s building and construction trades. To learn more about apprenticeship opportunities in Minnesota, visit https://constructioncareers.org/apprenticeship/.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota — Jenny Moore is on a mission. Her goal? Filling a critical gap in construction career exposure and guidance for Minnesota high school students.
Jenny Moore, Career Pathways Coordinator at White Bear Lake Area High Schools, District 624
As the Career Pathways Coordinator at White Bear Lake High School, Moore runs the high school’s Career Pathways program, an initiative that helps students explore a variety of careers while attending high school. In addition to the construction pathway, the school offers pathway programs in education, business, information technology, and more.
“I want every student to feel like they have the means to live a productive life outside of high school and early career exposure is an important part of that,” said Moore. “My job as the Career Pathways Coordinator is to strategically work with students on exploring their post-graduation options, help them make an informed decision about a career choice, and construct a career pathway based on that choice.”
Students who feel called to pursue a particular career pathway can officially register for a specific pathway as early as 10th grade. Students registered in the construction career pathway gain access to courses such as:
Blueprint Reading, Carpentry, & Hand Tools
Introduction to the Construction Industry
In addition to specialized coursework, registered students gain access to a multitude of off-campus and experiential learning opportunities. Benefits available to registered students include alumni support, career coaching, field trips, driver’s education, apprenticeship application sessions, and more.
“One important component to this work is ensuring that students have agency when they create their educational experience,” said Moore. “This programming is not required, and every student has a different level of participation in the program. Some students choose to take career pathway courses, some can weave in and out and try things as they see fit.”
As of March 2022, 106 students were registered construction career pathway students at White Bear Lake High School. The school has even more students who participate in construction career pathway courses, and who attend Construct Tomorrow and Learn2Build events, hands-on construction career exploration events for K-12 students.
These opportunities are supported by the Construction Careers Foundation, a Twin Cities-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit who seeks to increase the diversity of entrants into the construction trades and to enhance young people’s access to construction-related employment opportunities.
“Students find purpose in work – a lot of students need to work. This program connects their lives in the classroom to their lives outside of it,” said Moore. “For that reason and many more, I am so thankful that we can offer this program to our students, and I feel very privileged to be able to hold this position as Career Pathways Coordinator.”
Addressing Community Needs Through Educational Support
Moore’s passion for career readiness through education began during her six years as an elementary school teacher in rural Montana. In that role, Moore was the only fourth-grade teacher for the entire town.
“In that district, I worked with families that lived in extreme poverty, and started to see that when families are generally supported, their students do better,” said Moore.
This sparked Moore’s transition into a role with the University of Montana-Bitterroot College, where she created workforce training programs for undereducated or underemployed people.
“I found that when you empower and support young families and single moms, the whole community grows stronger, not just those families,” said Moore.
When the educator moved back to the Twin Cities area and saw a job posting for a Career Pathways Coordinator, she was enamored by the job’s marriage between education, workforce training, and what she describes as helping people find their “why.”
“I believe in education so wholeheartedly,” said Moore. “Finding that purpose and connecting that to what you are learning in the classroom, challenging and having that paradigm shift, thinking about how we can do better and work together to shape the future, have been my babies since the beginning of my career.”
Closing the Opportunity Gap
In her work at White Bear Lake Area High School, Moore recognizes that each student will have their own unique trajectory into adulthood and the beginning of their career. By acknowledging that each student comes from a different background, and therefore will require different modes of support, the educator is better able to guide and empower students to choose the path that is right for them.
“When you say, ‘college and career ready’— that has to mean ‘college and career ready’ for all students,” said Moore. “It’s about closing the opportunity gap, and not assuming that students automatically have access to every opportunity. Recognizing that, we intentionally create opportunities by engaging students of varying gender identities, students of color, and students who receive special education services, and connect them with opportunities that will be best suited for them to thrive.”
Moore works in tandem with equity educational specialists, the Black Excellence Club, and other groups at the school to be proactive about representation in these spaces, though she understands that simply reaching out to students is not all it takes to build an inclusive community.
“We try to be incredibly intentional about engagement, without making students of color feel like we are reaching out to them simply because they are students of color,” said Moore. “It can be really scary when you are the only person who looks like you on a construction site, and we want to acknowledge that. Engagement is about providing students with role models who look like they do, and creating a safe space for all students to learn and to be vulnerable, so they can feel supported and confident pursuing their career goals.”
The program hosts strategic events where diverse students can connect with leaders in their industry who are representative of the student population. For International Women’s Month in March 2022, Moore and other career programming staff partnered with McGough Construction to host a Women in the Skilled Trades Lunch. More than 10 students who identify as women attended the event and met with women leaders in architecture, engineering, and construction.
“For these events, we recruit mentors from underrepresented populations, so students feel as though they can have an intimate conversation with their mentors and really see themselves in the industry,” said Moore. “This gives them the space to learn, make mistakes and ask questions they might not feel like they can ask otherwise.”
Bringing Equity to the Construction Industry from the Inside-Out
An equally important component of this endeavor is collaborating with industry leaders to make the industry more accommodating for all students, not the other way around.
“We strive to help leaders in the construction industry see that, when it comes to hiring, it’s about being a cultural contributor, not a cultural fit,” noted Moore. “We are motivating construction companies by pointing out, for example, that having a student walk in the door and apply in person is not a great hiring strategy because some students might not have a driver’s license, and many students’ first language is not English. So far, the industry has responded positively, and we are beginning to see that shift occur.”
This idea is particularly relevant in the context of Minnesota’s dire need for construction labor due to skilled journey workers retiring and leaving the industry. For that reason, the scope of the program goes beyond that of student achievement and extends to the very communities in which students live and learn.
“This program is not just about helping students, it’s about creating educational opportunities based around a community mindset,” said Moore. “By addressing the workforce shortages in the state, we are not only helping students, but also their families, their communities, and the success of industries at large.”
Fostering Understanding Between Students and Parents
Due to social stigmas, and a general lack of awareness surrounding alternative career pathways to college, Moore notes that many students need extra support in communicating the value of a union construction apprenticeship to their family members.
“Many students have parents who view a four-year college degree as a kind of gold star. In that situation, it’s about reinforcing the concept that the apprenticeship pathway is a secondary education pathway, not unlike college,” said Moore. “My job is to help students and parents see each other where they are both at and introduce both parties to every option available so they can make an informed decision about the student’s career choice.”
White Bear Lake Area High School’s District, Independent School District 624, offers and hosts annual Parent Registration Nights. At these events, all staff members are available to talk with parents through career programming at a systemic level.
“I have yet to experience a negative response to the conversation,” said Moore. “Once we discuss what the job outlook looks like for students, and I explain that students will still be going to school, that it just looks different, parents have that sigh of relief. They get to have that connection with their child and be able to say, ‘I get it now, now I can support you how I want to support you, and now I see that this is an extremely valuable career path.’”
Finding a Community of Educators
Though not many educators have access to the kind of career programming at their school, there are plenty of vehicles to foster equitable career readiness work at any institution. For educators who wish to implement this kind of work into their own classrooms, but don’t have access to already-existing programming and connections, Moore offers this advice:
“If an educator wants to get involved in work like this, the community can and will back you up and find a way to get you involved. You aren’t alone,” said Moore. “Communities and employers – they see the point. They understand that this work is for the betterment of the entire community, so they are going to support you. I encourage educators to get out there and to network because everyone can help make a difference.”
Access Valuable Resources at ConstructionCareers.org
“The institutional support that the Construction Careers Foundation provides is imperative and integral to the success of our program. We simply could not do what we do without programs such as the Minnesota Trades Academy and Learn2Build,” said Moore. “I was just in a career investigations class, and I had the Construction Career Foundation’s website pulled up. The work this organization does allows educators to maintain a focus on building relationships with students. So, I’d like to express gratitude and thanks for what they have done for our program, and students and families in the district in any way that I can.”
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota– Amid the questioning of purpose and attempts to find community that are characteristic of adolescence, there comes a point in nearly everyone’s adolescence when you need somebody to look you in the eye, and tell you that the work that you do, and the person who you will become– matters.
For many Twin Cities area high school students, Charles Walker is that person.
Charles Walker pictured on site with members of his 2021 MTA class. PC: C. Walker
Walker is a Minnesota educator, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation organizer and youth mentor for the Minnesota Trades Academy, a paid summer construction internship experience for high school youth with the goal of preparing youth for adulthood through skill development, and access to good jobs with good benefits in the construction industry.
“My experience volunteering with the Minnesota Trades Academy has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Walker. “A lot of these kids are looking for summer jobs, and some can’t get one because of their age or because they don’t have access to transportation. The Minnesota Trades Academy is an important program, because it eliminates these obstacles for students, allowing them the equal opportunity to get paid to learn a trade that they may want to go into one day, regardless of their background.”
Walker’s experience with MTA began seven years ago through a connection with Sam Ebute, Trades Navigator for the Construction Careers Foundation, a Twin Cities- based nonprofit organization with the mission to, “increase the diversity of entrants into the construction trades and to enhance young people’s access to construction-related employment opportunities.”
The pair had previously coached track and field together at North High School in Minneapolis and had bonded over their shared passion for, “getting kids set on the right path,” according to Walker.
So, when Ebute informed Walker of the Minnesota Trades Academy’s need for mentors to oversee their summer programming, Walker knew it would be a perfect fit for his skill set. He began mentoring with the program and hasn’t looked back since, returning every summer since he first began his role.
Finding Meaning Alongside Peers
For Walker, the value of the Minnesota Trades Academy extends beyond career preparation. The educator has found incredible success using his influence as a mentor to foster strong, life-long friendships between the program’s interns– who, Walker notes, often come from very different backgrounds– and instill in his students strong values of community engagement and service, respect for one’s peers and one’s community, and pride in oneself.
“I teach every kid that I encounter that we are not going to disrespect one another. If you have a problem with that you are in the wrong place,” said Walker. “In my first year with the program, I had one group of students who were all gangbangers – But I teach every student that we are all one when we enter this program. I make it known that it’s not about where they come from, it’s where they are going, and we are all headed down the same path when we are with MTA. Once that respect is there, everything else falls into place.”
“Besides gaining experience using tools, it is the friendship and bonds that students make along the way that really makes the program a success,” said Walker. “Those students from my first year with the program forged a strong bond together that summer, and many of them are still friends to this day.”
With students’ sense of purpose and community bonds growing increasingly unsteady under the weight of two years of a global pandemic, to say Walker’s continued success in this sector is anything short of a miracle would be an understatement.
Service-Oriented Program Builds Students’ Sense of Purpose
Walker draws upon his well-earned foundation of respect to inform the work that interns perform in service of their community during their time in the program. Walker recalled one recent project where students built a handicap ramp for a woman living in south Minneapolis.
“The handicap ramp project was probably my favorite project that the kids completed,” said Walker. “That project marked a big step for a lot of the students because they just loved working on that project. When it was completed, they were very happy with what they did for her, and so proud.”
During a different project, in which students rebuilt a deck for an elderly woman living in Minneapolis, Walker realized that one of the student interns lived only two blocks away from the project site.
“I was recently in touch with that student, and he told me that he walks by that house everyday. He spoke about how proud it makes him to see that the work he did on that house had such a profound impact on his neighbor,” added Walker. “It is in this way that the program has had such a positive impact on how these students view and respect the world around them.”
At the end of each MTA term, students work on one large community-based project. In summer 2021, Walker’s MTA class built a high school a ticket booth for sporting events. PC: C. Walker
Walker values the respect that his students have for him, and does not take that responsibility lightly. The educator is committed to showing up for any student who needs guidance, no matter how long it has been since their time with the Minnesota Trades Academy.
“If any of these kids get in trouble, I am often the first person that they call, even if it’s years after they have taken part in the program,” said Walker. “I do a lot of work in this community with youth, so they trust me to help them navigate difficult situations, and help them resolve whatever issues they have.”
Two MTA alumni whom Walker mentors to this day are DeShawn Davis, whom Walker first met when Davis ran on the 7th grade track team that Walker coached, and who took part in MTA three years ago; and Josiah Sutton, who completed the MTA program four years ago.
Davis and Sutton both entered a career in construction after their time with the program. Davis recently began an apprenticeship with a construction company that is renovating Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, while Sutton is reaching the end of his bricklaying apprenticeship and will soon graduate to become a journeyworker.
Educators: Get Involved Today
Educators seeking guidance in informing their students about a career in construction, or hoping to pass along the opportunity to join the Minnesota Trades Academy, can visit the Resources for Teachers page on the ConstructionCareers.org website.
Students and Parents: Connect with Resources at ConstructionCareers.org
Those seeking guidance on learning about a career in the construction industry can contact Sam Ebute, Trades Navigator for the Construction Careers Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive personalized support in entering a career in the union building trades.
Students, parents, and educators can visit ConstructionCareers.org to explore 30+ careers in the union construction industry, have access to valuable information regarding apprenticeships, read about the experiences of current construction apprentices in Minnesota, and more.
To learn more about the Minnesota Trades Academy, visit here.
Celebrating Earth Day is more than just reducing, reusing, and recycling; it’s also about spreading awareness about the construction career opportunities that are found in Minnesota’s renewable energy sector.
Construction jobs in the renewable energy sector are some of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. According to Reuters, the number of jobs in renewable energy worldwide increased in 2020, despite the huge economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 2021 report released by sponsors E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) and nonprofits Clean Energy Trust and Clean Energy Economy Minnesota revealed that wind-and-solar power have become the cheapest forms of electrical energy accommodating state-and-federal legislation.
While clean energy can encompass a wide variety of types of energy generation, including hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear power, the two fastest growing forms of clean energy are solar power and wind power. With new technology, both types of clean energy are able to more efficiently harvest the power of sun and wind, which in turn, has made them more cost-effective in comparison to traditional forms of fossil fuel energy such as utility-scale coal, oil and natural gas. In the years to come, new forms of clean energy may include green and gray hydrogen power and possibly fission power.
“As Minnesota and other Midwest states make the transition to clean energy from fossil fuel energy, more construction workers will be needed in the years to come to build and maintain clean energy power plants,” said Mary Stuart, Associate Director of the Construction Careers Foundation, a Twin Cities nonprofit that introduces young people to careers in construction through educational opportunities. “For young people who like working with their hands and want to be part of the future, now is the time to explore a career in construction.”
Explore Construction Careers in Renewable Energy
Building a solar power plant or a wind farm requires construction workers such as heavy-equipment operators build service roads or dig the foundation for a wind turbine, electricians to wire a power plant and connect it to the grid, or laborers to organize construction materials and ready a site for other construction professionals to do their work.
Here are some careers in Minnesota’s construction industry that are involved in the creation and maintenance of our most prominent renewable energy sources — solar power grids and wind farms.
Laborers – Measures, cut, assemble, and bolt, organize materials on a clean energy construction site.
Heavy equipment operators — Uses bulldozers, backhoes, excavators, and scrapers to procure the landscape for installation.
Pile Drivers – May drive steel, concrete, or wood piling into the earth during the early stages of construction.
Electricians – Inspect and install electrical systems, read technical and wiring diagrams, including blueprints and adhere to state and local regulations based on the national electrical code.
Construction managers – Oversee operations and direct crews to specific locations on site.
Foremen – Adhere to safety practices, meet deadlines, and manage groups of trades workers.
Solar Power Generation
If you’ve seen solar panels on a house, a school or even rows of panels in what looks like a farm field, you’re looking at solar power. Solar power is popular for its versatility in generating electricity. It can be used to heat water, heat and cool homes and commercial buildings, power streetlights, and much more. Solar power ranges from utility-scale solar power plants that supply large amounts of electricity to the power grid to commercial solar power used by businesses as well as residential solar power generated by homeowners and businesses that have panels installed on their roofs.
To construct utility-scale solar power plants, a range of construction professionals are needed – electricians, heavy-equipment operators, pipefitters, laborers, and more.
The American Wind Energy Association says Minnesota has more than 2,400 turbines. To add to the list above – ironworkers and sheet metal workers are also commonplace on wind turbine sites. Both help fabricate, install, and repair wind turbines.
Local 512 Ironworker Apprentice, Ashlyn Curtis sometimes climbs more than 300 ft. with 20 lbs. of equipment on her body to repair a power cell at the top of a turbine.
“Working on wind power is something I never imagined that my career in construction would lead me to,” Curtis said. “It’s a surreal experience being able to learn skills for my career and practice them on Minnesota’s new energy projects.”
Curtis represents the future of Minnesota union construction workers who will change the state’s energy landscape through planning, building and maintaining renewable energy sites, according to the Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council.
“I worked with 20 to 25 experienced ironworkers on wind farm projects and I’m proud that I can learn alongside them and represent the future of construction professionals who will build Minnesota’s clean energy landscape,” Curtis said. “It’s been an incredible learning experience.”
Do you have what it takes to work in Construction at Renewable Energy Sites?
“Renewable energy work sites typically exist in more rural areas where there’s enough space for a solar field or wind turbines,” said Stuart. “For construction workers, this usually means commuting to a worksite, following site-specific safety demands and diligently working with other trades professionals to complete a project.”
If working in renewable energy is an interest of yours, there are a number of certifications to help you become more qualified on specific energy worksites. Union training centers have additional safety courses, and technical tests that journey workers can pass to receive specific credentials to work on or lead a crew at an energy site.
Irondale High School Career Navigator and Work-Based Learning Coordinator Angela Zappa challenges her students to think about their future after high school.
Zappa has conversations about careers with her students and has built a curriculum around helping students with an interest in construction connect with relevant work opportunities and programs that support their career exploration process.
“More than 1,700 students are enrolled at Irondale High School (located in New Brighton). I help students identify their skills, explore careers of interest, and investigate steps needed to enter that specific career pathway,” Zappa said. “A four-year college degree isn’t the right fit for all students, especially with the variety of training options through apprenticeship programs, technical colleges and workforce training programs intended to propel students into a high-demand career.”
In her career at Irondale, Zappa’s experiences as an educator have made her realize the importance of developing foundational academic skills alongside employability skills so that students can find success in a fulfilling career after high school.
“I’ve taught English, Special Education and eventually moved into the Work-Based Learning coordinator role. During my time as a work coordinator, I’ve heard the cries from trades and manufacturing fields due to the shortage of skilled workers. There’s so much opportunity for our students who want to work with their hands,” Zappa said.
Zappa teaches two courses at Irondale: Careers Plus and Trades and Manufacturing Career Exploration.
“The ‘Plus’ in Career Plus is the On-the-Job training part of our program; at Irondale we recognize many of our students already work part-time jobs. When possible, we try to match their career interests with their part-time jobs,” Zappa said. “Some students are helping their families by contributing to monthly bills and it’s important that they understand their salary, benefits, and career advancement opportunities.”
Career Exploration Courses at Irondale
Irondale High School offers a variety of technical education courses to students including Engineering, Small Engines, Digital Electronics, Welding, and a course titled “How to Make Almost Anything” (a woodshop and general construction focused course). Mounds View students also have the opportunity to enroll in these courses.
In addition to these skills courses, Zappa supports trades and manufacturing focused students with career exploration courses such as her Careers Plus program and a new course called Trades and Manufacturing Career Exploration.
“I know that name is a mouthful, but we wanted to be clear about what exactly happens in this new course: OSHA 10 Safety Training, job site tours, apprenticeship training center tours, guest speakers, and field trips such as Construct Tomorrow,” Zappa said.
We didn’t know how many students would register for this new class, but the response represented an overwhelming interest in the construction trades and excitement for touring real workplaces.
“There was enough student interest to offer two full classes next year,” Zappa said. “We worked with the dean team to identify students whose interests would be a good fit for this program, and we’re double what we had hoped for in response.”
As an educator who thrives on helping students ‘find their fit,’ Zappa is thrilled at the student body interest in her new course.
In response to a growing demand for trades professionals nationally, Zappa also investigated internship opportunities that her trades students could explore locally through community partnerships and employers.
Less than two miles from Irondale High School, Johnson Screens, a fabricator of water well screens earned approval from the Minnesota Department of Labor as a Youth Skills Training (YST) program site.
“YST Project Manager, Rich Wessels, helped us form this partnership between Johnson Screens and build the pathway for student employment,” Zappa said. “We now have four students, ages 16-18, placed as welding interns at Johnson Screens this summer whether it be part time, weekends, or full time.”
Irondale Partners with the Minnesota Trades Academy to Bring Summer Construction Internships to Tech Ed Classes
“Our goal in the Career and Technical Education department is to prepare students for a successful career by connecting skills learned in the classroom to skills needed for success and growth in a career,” Zappa said.
That’s where the Minnesota Trades Academy (MTA) comes in. Hosted by the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based nonprofit Construction Careers Foundation, the Minnesota Trades Academy is a paid summer construction trades internship program that gives high school students ages 16 to 21 years old training and mentorship in real construction trades careers.
The program consists of two tracks of study. The Track I internship program focuses on hands-on building with tools and an introduction to construction career opportunities. Track II focuses on guiding students interested in a career in construction through apprenticeship union training center tours, including training in how to participate in an interview, often one of the first steps in securing a real-life apprenticeship with a Minnesota construction trade union.
“Our partnership with MTA is 10 years strong. We’re super proud of this partnership because it gives our students access to union training centers and hands-on experience. It allows them to meet people in the field and try out different trades to see what careers they like,” Zappa said. “We have four students from our Mounds View District who will be participating in MTA this summer, and historically we’ve received overwhelmingly positive reviews of the program because our students get paid well, get job training and some take the connections they make and pursue a career in the trades.”
Zappa prioritizes sending out the call for MTA applications.
“We host Program Manager Lindsay Tallman to talk about the program to our tech ed students,” Zappa said. “Students come into my office for appointments to fill out the application and prepare for the interview process; it’s a multi-step process that leads to big opportunities for our Irondale students.”
Zappa’s Advice to Educators Seeking to Incorporate Construction in their Curriculum
“Look to your community for support. At Irondale, that’s Mindy Handberg, Director of Community Partnerships at Mounds View Public Schools,” Zappa said. “She deserves a big thank you because she keeps our schools connected with our community by reaching out to potential local partners, businesses and programs for our students to get real world experience.”
For educators working to develop a program or build those connections, Zappa recommends engaging directly with technical education teachers and learning how you can support them and the students moving through the courses.
One place to start gathering resources is ConstructionCareers.org, where educators can gather career-specific information and general information on the apprenticeship process for Minnesota’s construction trades.
Kinsey Neal, 24, graduated from college with a degree in geology and sustainable community development and secured her dream job working with an environmental nonprofit.
Or, so she thought.
While it seemed that Neal had accomplished everything she wanted, a bounty of student debt left her feeling like she was carrying a huge weight everywhere she went.
“It was exactly what I always thought I would do, and I didn’t like it,” Neal said. “I was bored with the 9-5. My tasks were repetitive, and I didn’t see the results of my work actually making a difference in the world.”
Neal confided to her friends that she wanted to change her career. A few of her friends worked in construction and suggested Neal consider an apprenticeship with one of the construction trades.
“Thinking back on my hobbies, I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,” Neal said. “I bake, quilt, knit – all tactile things that keep my brain active and produce tangible results. I didn’t know if an apprenticeship would be right for me, but I started to explore careers in construction to learn more about the benefits and pay of construction work.”
After computer research and a few phone calls, Neal joined the IronWorkers Local 512 and started her first of four years in an apprenticeship.
Kinsey Neal is a first year ironworker apprentice with Local 512. A video interview with more of Neal’s story will be featured this fall.
“I feel so at home as an ironworker,” Neal said. “I feel like I love my job every single day. I get to walk across giant steel beams in the sky.”
Besides finding her true passion in ironworking, Neal is equally impressed with the life her new career allows her to lead outside of work.
“All the people I’m working with are buying fun, new cars, and new houses, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what?’” said Neal. “Honestly, no one I know who went to college is buying their own house unless they have parents who can help them out. But that’s what people who work in the trades are doing.”
“Basically, everywhere in the world there’s concrete, but underneath it there’s rebar, and that’s what reinforcing ironworkers do,” Neal said. “I’m currently working as a structural ironworker, so we put up big steel beams. That’s where there’s a lot of welding, which is why I wanted to become an ironworker.”
For Neal, one of the best parts about ironworking is the satisfaction of looking out at a skyline and knowing she played a hand in its creation and longevity.
“Sometimes you take a step back, and if you’re on the roof of a really big building, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I am building America, I fully built this (project) and it’s going to be there for a long time,’” Neal said.
Finding Community in the Union
A bonus to finding a career she was passionate about was the community that came with joining a union.
“When you go to meetings, everyone calls you brother or sister,” Neal said. “The bond you have creates a supportive work environment for people of every background.”
Neal wants high school students and potential college applicants to consider the trades as a legitimate career path and she believes the construction trades have something for everyone.
“In college I was academic focused — honors classes, clubs, and I was student body president,” Neal said. “The trades are a community that accepts people of all backgrounds, passions and education experience. Unions are invested in your growth; they want you to succeed, and they’ll pay you to complete your apprenticeship and teach you everything you need to know.”
Interested in more information about a rewarding career in construction?
T.J. Austin grew up on construction sites around his home state of Texas. His father worked for Malachi Construction, a large contractor based out of Dallas, Texas, for a number of years before starting his own construction business.
“I watched him use all of the tools of the trade and I saw how he was able to lead a team of people from all different trades,” Austin said. “Construction has always been familiar to me, and I love it. As an educator, I take pride in being able to share construction knowledge with my students and of course there’s a part of me that sees them going into the trades and knowing that career path would probably have been the career for me, too, if I had pursued it right out of high school.”
Austin teaches 6-12th grade students at Humboldt High School in St. Paul. He’s been with the district for nine years and taught across a variety of curriculums specializing in agriculture and natural resources, automotive maintenance, and construction.
Joining the Minnesota Trades Academy as a St. Paul Trainer
For years, Austin has promoted the Twin Cities nonprofit Construction Careers Foundation, its website ConstructionCareers.org to his classes, and its summer internship program, the Minnesota Trades Academy (MTA).
Austin’s first connection to the Construction Careers Foundation was through meeting Trades Navigator Sam Ebute in 2016 at a Construct Tomorrow event.
“Sam has always been focused on bringing more awareness to the construction trades,” Austin said. “At the time, I agreed with him and began to promote his programs in my classroom. Since then, I have only seen the need for new skilled tradespeople grow and I’m also seeing how college and the military are so heavily promoted to students – and for many, that’s not how they learn best or what they want to do after high school.”
This year, Austin reconnected with Ebute to learn how he could get more involved in the Construction Career Foundation’s programs and bring more career exploration opportunities to St. Paul students. He joined the Minnesota Trades Academy as a trainer for a group of ten St. Paul construction interns.
“We do an unbelievable amount in eight weeks,” Austin said. “It shocked me. That’s what separates this program from others. Students explore dozens of construction careers and tour union training sites for cement masons, bricklayers, ironworkers, pipefitters, carpenters — the list goes on.”
Austin said with each site visit and project he loves encouraging the students to try everything out, ask questions and get contacts for the union educators and business managers that they want to pursue an apprenticeship with.
“Day after day, it’s seeing the lightbulb go off for the MTA interns,” Austin said. “They say, ‘Wow, I never knew this was a career,’ or ‘All the math equations I learned in school — I can use them in this job.’”
Austin’s favorite thing to hear from interns: ‘I can do this.’ In those moments Austin sees his impact as an educator.
“I want every student to have that realization that they are smart and capable,” he said. “Helping them discover what they want to do for a career – it’s the best feeling.”
It Pays to be a Minnesota Trades Academy Intern
MTA interns make competitive wages from the first day of the program.
“It’s right to pay our students. They put in the time and effort and do real work at a professional level,” Austin said. “It’s a job and because they are paid, they take it seriously.”
Austin added what separates an intern work environment from one with students is accountability.
“MTA interns show up on time, they’re dressed for the job in personal protective equipment, they stay focused and respect the people and spaces around them,” Austin said. “Learning and participating isn’t optional – it’s expected.”
One Summer – Two Success Stories
As an MTA trainer Austin’s goal is to help St. Paul students learn about careers in construction and choose one to pursue as a career after graduation.
“It’s my first summer and I already have two students starting construction apprenticeships,” Austin said. “They left our MTA team for the sprinkler fitters union and the finishing trades. By the end of summer, I want my remaining 8 interns leaving here knowing what their plan is after graduation and if they are of hiring age (18 years+), I will shake their hands and wish them the best as they start a career in construction.”
ConstructionCareers.org is the most comprehensive resource for exploring careers in Minnesota’s construction industry
Austin encourages every counselor, shop, and construction educator in Minnesota to review the opportunities and information provided by the Construction Careers Foundation at ConstructionCareers.org.
“It’s a free tool available to us educators and it’s being underutilized right now,” Austin said. “These opportunities and this information changes people’s lives. It can place them in a real career right after high school and it can support them financially and with benefits — an especially great option for high school students who aren’t interested in college or the military.”
Minnesota Trades Academy (MTA) interns from St. Paul spend their summer getting paid to work on real construction projects and touring union apprenticeship training centers to prepare for a career in construction.
Most of the interns have taken construction, welding or shop classes in high school and join the Minnesota Trades Academy to continue to develop their skills and learn from construction professionals. However, this summer, a cohort of St. Paul MTA interns had the chance to become construction experts and mentor middle school students taking part in Central High School’s Learn2Build summer camp.
“Our goal is to challenge our interns every day, whether it’s learning a new tool or practicing a skill such as measuring and blueprint reading,” said Construction Careers Foundation Program Director Lindsay Tallman. “Interns have many preferred learning styles, whether it be tactile, auditory or spatial, and working in the trades means being able to learn in many ways. Partnering with Learn2Build gave our St. Paul interns a special opportunity to go from being the student to being the expert and demonstrating their skills to a younger class.”
Learn2Build Program Manager Mary DesJarlais said witnessing the partnership between Minnesota Trades Academy interns and Learn2Build students fulfilled a huge educational goal for the greater Twin Cities nonprofit, Construction Careers Foundation, which has developed both programs individually over the last 10 years.
“This was a full circle moment for the Construction Career Foundation’s programming efforts,” DesJarlais said. “We watched MTA interns take the skills they’ve practiced every day for more than a month and with confidence convey their knowledge to the middle school students. It’s awesome to see how quickly they took to being role models for our students.”
Minnesota Trades Academy interns and Learn2Build students together built three-legged stools, which entailed following a blueprint, measuring, and cutting legs for the stool, sanding the legs and mixing concrete for the seat.
“We just stepped back and watched our interns lead the teams and they did a great job,” St. Paul MTA Trainer Bob Prifrel said. “It’s great to see our interns — the next generation of construction professionals — telling the young kids about their career goals and the benefits of joining MTA. We hope to see the Learn2Build students in our program in just a few years.”
Representation in the Construction Trades
Bringing together both programs fostered new conversations between the high school and middle school students.
“It’s different when an adult is talking to a young person about construction, sometimes a professional career seems so far away,” Tallman said. “Listening to the students connect with each other, I hear them talking about what they like most about construction, and what careers appeal to them, and of course, they bond over TV shows, hobbies, and sports. The conversations are candid, and we can see our younger students love being with the big kids.”
DesJarlais added that Learn2Build students create projects that mirror real world construction sites but having MTA mentors present sets a behavior example for the younger students to follow.
“Learn2Build students see MTA interns showing up on time, following directions and taking turns using tools. Our students are inspired by them and follow their behavior because they want to be engaged in all the projects,” DesJarlais said. “What’s even more impactful is they work with students that look like them, grow up in the same neighborhood, and play the same sports — MTA interns are more than just teachers for the day – they’re real role models.”
A Program Partnership for the Future
Both Learn2Build students and MTA interns reacted positively to the integrated program model.
“This was a valuable experience for our younger students, and we plan to have the programs intersect even more next summer with our locations in St. Paul, Minneapolis, White Bear Lake and Brooklyn Center,” DesJarlais said.
Bring Construction Careers Foundation Activities to your Classroom
Interested in bringing construction career programming to your school? Connect with Construction Careers Foundation Program Director Lindsay Tallman at email@example.com.
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