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Construct Tomorrow: Events are Canceled, Futures are Not

Construct Tomorrow finished its 2019-20 schedule after scheduling nine events across Minnesota, but doing just eight. “We had to cancel our Moorhead even in late March,” said Tim Bussse, Executive Director of Construct Tomorrow. “It was really disappointing because they did a lot of work. Given the situation with the governor’s restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19, there’s nothing we could do. We promised them we’d be back next year though!”

Construct Tomorrow will continue the career fairs into the future. Before the global pandemic interrupted everyday commerce, the events were on track to attract approximately 8,000 Minnesota high school students. When it comes to feedback from the events, Busse says students actions speak louder than words. With activities from all the different trades on hand (from pounding nails to working with wet cement), it’s easy to witness their curiosity from their involvement. The most direct feedback comes from teachers and school counselors, however. “More often than not they are pleasantly surprised at how engaged their students were at the event,” he said.

Construct Tomorrow measures success directly by the number of students who enroll in the trades after high school. “We don’t have specific numbers — which is something we have to work on — between Construct Tomorrow and the other events that recruit students into construction trades apprenticeship programs,” Busse said. “The numbers are going up, but we need to put it all together so there is that bright line between the two.”

Going forward, one change that may be coming to select events will be the addition of an evening session geared toward adults. In some markets, the demand for workers is so pronounced that finding people who can move into apprentice training programs right away is a priority. “High school students are playing for the long game, expanding their career horizons. The evening session would be to the general public. Ideally we’d like kids to come back at night with their parents, but it would mainly be geared for adults who want to do more. People who are underemployed, who want to switch careers,” Busse said.

For example, one market that’s a candidate for the evening session is Duluth. The city is amidst a $300(m) hospital building project along with highway construction projects in the works. Northern Minnesota is bustling with construction activity and needs workers who don’t merely tolerate winter weather, but embrace it. As Busse put it, “We are looking forward to next year, recruiting the next generation who want to work in the trades — and enjoy the benefits of being in the trades.”

Here are some reactions from four guidance counselors who attended Construct Tomorrow events with their students:

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Like Mother, Like Daughter: Brays Work Together as 49ers

When work on the I-35W Downtown to Crosstown project resumes in earnest this spring, Kim and Brittney Bray will be hard at work once again. Amidst the mountains of concrete piled high in the southbound lanes and the heavy equipment, the mother/daughter duo will be working as operating engineers and members of IUOE Local 49.

Their family legacy in the trades began with Kim’s brother who worked as a piledriver. “My brother told me they needed women and I was interested in joining the union. I went in and applied and got the job,” Kim said, now an 11-year veteran who started as a roller operator. The long hours and hard work don’t faze her. Her days as a working mother prepared her for life in the 49ers. “When I had kids when they were little I picked them up from day care and then I had to go back to work again. I’m used to working a lot.”

Her daughter Brittney graduated from Hamline with degrees in environmental studies and business. Soon thereafter she found herself at a dead end. “At the time (right out of college) I was working a call center job that I had worked at in college and I was pretty much miserable, sitting inside the office during the summer. Working at an office job stuck in a chair all day pretty much wasn’t my thing,” she explained. Like her mom, she heard the 49ers were looking for women so she applied. She made it into the apprentice program and eventually became a journeyworker.

They both enjoy the benefits of the work they do, but when they work they REALLY work. Working on the I-35W project involves long hours. During the summer, it’s meant 12-hour days, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and maybe longer, working six days a week, sometimes seven. The project involves lots of people from several different crews because the work is so varied. New bridges, walls for the sides of the highway, underground roads, utilities like water, sewer and electrical work — lots of construction you don’t see when you’re driving by. “We often work on top of each other with the different crews,” Brittney said. “You get used to the long hours. It can catch up on you as far as getting things done around the house and having a life. But the paychecks are good and the benefits are nice.”

One of the benefits for them has been having winters off from work. Brittney went to Thailand in December and Kim planned a trip to Houston for the two of them to see a Rolling Stones concert. Added Brittney, “You just have to be careful what you spend your money on during the summertime. If you budget things out, you can make it work.”

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