Originally published to Patriot News MN on August 18th, 2022
Zachary Stanger’s interest in heavy equipment started early.
“From the time I was just a kid building stuff in the sandbox, every time I drove past a construction site and saw all the equipment, I just fell in love with it,” he said.
Now the recent Becker High School graduate is working for Rachel Contracting, with plans to become an apprentice equipment operator with the company next spring.
Stanger is just one of the success stories to come out of the Operating Engineers Pathway, a statewide career exploration program that’s free to public school students in grades nine through 12. Run by Minnesota Virtual Academy and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, the
Pathway gives students an up-close look at the field of heavy equipment operation and repair, while offering a chance to earn high school, college and apprenticeship credit simultaneously.
Now enrolling for its third year, the Pathway has seen faster-than-expected growth, with 181 students participating from 76 school districts last school year. Of the 56 high school seniors enrolled last year, 22 planned to pursue a career in equipment operation.
“There’s an incredible appetite for students and their parents to feel like they’re having a meaningful career pathway and opportunity with industry and education,” said Jenny Winkelaar, director of workforce and community development for Local 49.
The program’s success comes as companies report a shortage of skilled labor and as jobs in the trades gain attention for being meaningful careers at good wages — without the need for burdensome college debt.
“There’s never been a better time to be an equipment operator or a mechanic in this industry than right now,” Local 49 Business Manager Jason George said.
Pathway students can take four, one-semester classes online that cover topics from equipment fundamentals to grade and construction math. The online classes offer flexibility, and in-person learning events provide hands-on experience and industry networking opportunities.
“I am absolutely amazed at the opportunity our students have statewide to learn and partner with Local 49,” said Mary Morem, superintendent of Houston Public Schools, which houses Minnesota Virtual Academy. “I feel like it is a triple win. A win for the students to have a chance to run equipment and learn from our industry experts, a win for the college as students are able to articulate credits, and a win for the industry as they are getting young people to join the industry with background knowledge and passion for the pathway.”
The program is the first of its kind in Minnesota.
“The most unique thing about it is that no school in the state was able to really do a deep dive on heavy equipment, because no school could afford to buy heavy equipment,” Pathway instructor Catherine DesChamps said. “And we have found ways to make the classes really interesting... We get really good feedback from the kids.”
“Like any high school careers program, it’s all about exploration,” instructor Zachary Humphrey said.
Some students will realize equipment operation isn’t for them, but those who complete the courses and apply to be apprentices will have “a really good foundation,” Humphrey said.
Zachary Stanger said he would encourage high school students take the classes, even if they never thought of being an equipment operator or mechanic.
“It shows us endless possibilities,” he said. “There’s just so many different avenues you can do... I would highly recommend all the classes.”
To learn more about Minnesota Virtual Academy, visit https://mnva.k12.com/