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.”