“I always loved playing in the dirt as a child. Now I’m getting paid to do it. It’s my dream job!”

According to many career experts, the clue to finding a career that you will love rests in looking back to what you loved to do as a child.

For Mike Masten lll, a 27-year-old Cass Lake resident member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, that realization occurred about a year ago after he was accepted into a special program to learn how to become a heavy equipment operator.

“As soon as I got the opportunity to operate a piece of heavy equipment, it dawned on me,” says Masten, “this is what I was meant to do. I immediately felt a sense of joy and happiness.”

“I loved playing in the dirt with my Tonka Toys as a kid,” he adds. “I never realized that I could actually get paid to do it. It’s been a life changing experience for me.”

Journey Began With Teaching

After graduating from Cass Lake-Bena High School, Masten decided to follow in his mother’s footsteps and pursue a career as an early childhood school teacher. He attended college at the Leech Lake Tribal College, earning a AA degree in early childhood education, passed the Minnesota state exam to obtain his teaching license, and began his career as an early childhood teacher at the Early Childhood Learning Center on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation in Cass Lake, primarily focusing on children, from ages 1 to 5 years old.

While Masten enjoyed his work, over time, he did not feel called to do it as a long-term career. It was demanding, and the pay was insufficient. After seven years of being a teacher, Masten knew he had to make a change.

“I realized that I didn’t have to be a teacher for the rest of my life,” says Masten. “I could move on and try something different.”

At around this same time, Masten’s father was making a career change for better wages, being he has worked heavy equipment for 17 years. His father had been accepted into Local 49, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 49, and began an apprenticeship learning how to operate heavy equipment, such as bulldozers and excavators.

“I could watch my dad working in an excavator for hours,” says Masten. “Something in me just clicked. I loved watching him dig into the ground. It brought out these feelings of working with the Earth. Of playing in the dirt as a kid.”

As Masten inquired about how he could become a heavy equipment operator, he learned about a training program through the TERO office on the Leech Lake tribal reservation.

TERO stands for Tribal Employment Rights Office. A number of tribes/bands in the Great Lakes region offer TERO programs, including the Red Lake Band, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Keweenah Indian Tribe, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the Oneida Tribe, the Stockbridge Munsee Community and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

The first priority of TERO is to enforce the TERO Ordinance on or near each reservation by protecting Native American “preferential” employment and contracting, improving wages, training careers and contracting, and assisting businesses to achieve TERO compliance. TERO’s Job Skills Bank offers opportunities to learn landscaping, roofing, drywall, painting, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, welding, heavy equipment operation, road construction, security and labor both skilled and unskilled.

For six weeks, the intense classroom training provided by the Local 49 in partnership with the TERO program offers TERO trainees all of the basic elements they need to find a job with a contractor. Upon obtaining an entry-level job, typically as a laborer, the TERO graduates can then be accepted into the four-year Local 49 apprenticeship program.

“The TERO program introduced me to the 49ers that gave me all of the basic tools I needed to get started in the construction industry,” Masten says. “I learned everything from OSHA standards to how to use small tools. It’s a great program to get the ball rolling on a construction career and to get prepared to start an apprenticeship.”

After completing the TERO program through the 49ers training center, Masten obtained a job with Sellin Brothers, Inc., a firm located in Hawley, Minnesota, specializing in highway construction, underground utility construction (sewer, water and storm water), and snow removal.

In his job, Masten works as a laborer as he gains experience with various types of heavy equipment related to real life work projects such as highway reconstruction, airport construction, municipal street grading, wetland restoration, and watershed construction.

While Masten is learning on the job (and being paid at the same time), he also takes classes at the Local 49’s Hinckley Training Center. His classes involve both actual classroom training, as well as field work, where apprentices practice using various types of heavy equipment.

“Typically, you start off with smaller equipment, such as a skid steer,” says Masten, “as you work your way up to learning how to use excavators, bulldozers, and scrapers.”

The goal of the apprenticeship is to eventually become a journeyman. To achieve that goal, apprentices must complete 4,000 work hours and 288 classroom hours.

Looking Forward; Looking Back

When asked about what advice he’d like to share with today’s high school students, in particular young people who belong to the Chippewa tribe, Masten says: “I just wish I knew this career in construction was an option earlier. I had no idea you could get paid good money for playing in the dirt all day!”

“I wish I knew about this option back when I was 18 years old and a senior in high school,” Masten says. “When I was in school, there were only three options – either go to college, go into the military or work on the reservation the rest of your life. No one brought up a career in the construction trades as another option. I would encourage high schools to invite people from the construction trades into their schools and let students learn about what a career in construction has to offer.”

Through his new career, Masten is starting to realize some other things that he wants in life.

For example, a major part of his job is traveling. For classes alone, he has to drive three-and-a-half hours. For some jobs, he has had to travel from Cass Lake to Rochester. While this is not glamorous, it’s allowing Masten to see other parts of Minnesota. Now he dreams of getting jobs in other countries and being able to travel the world doing the job he loves.

“I’ve traveled to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Las Vegas. But now I’m wondering what it would be like to actually work in other parts of the country or even work in another part of the world. It’ll be awhile before I get to that point,” Masten says, “as I need to get some time and experience with the equipment under my belt. But knowing it’s an option in the future is really exciting.”

When Masten completes his registered apprenticeship program with the Local 49, he will be able to do just that – his apprenticeship is accepted in 50 states, which means he can get a job operating heavy equipment anywhere in the United States.

While Masten dreams of where he might work in the future, at the same time, his career with the Local 49ers is also allowing him to build a strong financial foundation.

“I’m already enrolled in our pension plan, and I have health insurance, too,” says Masten. “As a member of a union, I know they’ve got my back.”

In addition, Masten points to the dramatic affect that his pay has had on his life.

“As a first year apprentice, I make $18.77 per hour,” Masten says. “When I complete my apprenticeship, I’ll make more than $40 per hour, depending upon what zone I’ll work in, and what equitment I’ll be running. This is much, much more than I could ever make as a teacher. It’s already changing my ability to buy things I need and want, including going traveling.”

“I always loved being out in the yard playing with trucks in the dirt and the sandbox,” Masten says. “While this is serious work that we do, to me it’s like getting paid to play in the dirt. My advice to anyone who is wondering about making a career change is this: Take a close look at what you liked to do as a kid. Whatever you liked as a kid, you’ll probably like as an adult.

“I’m so glad I found this.”

To learn more about construction apprenticeship opportunities, visit ConstructionCareers.org. To learn more about the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 49, visit Local49.org.