Center News /
September 14, 2022

Influencing Appreciation for the Trades

On August 2nd the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence (TCOE) hosted its first Influencer’s Day in conjunction with the Midwest Teachers of Transportation and Industrial Areas (MTTIA) summer conference. 

You might be thinking to yourself “What’s an influencer?” and no, we’re not talking about social media influencers. We’re talking about student influencers. An influencer, in our context, is anyone that has an impact on a student’s journey to their career. These could be teachers, counselors, admissions staff, administrators, and even family members whom students interact with.  

Ironically, and especially in the trades, many influencers haven’t had the opportunity to actually work in the fields they promote. Similarly, they haven’t had much opportunity to rub shoulders with those in the pathways and learn their stories. So, we invited influencers from across the state to spend the day with us to learn how to advocate for careers in the trades, experience hands-on trades activities and to hear from young professionals about how they made their decisions about college.    

As intended, the group of nearly two dozen participants was comprised of recruiters, advisors, administrators, co-op/industry council staff, and instructors. The event was hosted by Central Lakes College’s West campus in Staples, MN. Participants entered through the main entrance that leads into a diamond-shaped classroom, computer lab/simulator suite, and soils lab. Just a short walk down the hallway, the facility expands into a massive 17,440 square ft. shop, featuring two tool rooms, a parts room, a dozen welding bays, four five-ton overhead cranes and 16 work bays capable of holding dozens of semi-trucks and off-road heavy machinery for students to train in preventative maintenance, welding, and machinery repair. The building itself is situated on the southwest corner of a beautiful 360 acre plot of land devoted to heavy equipment operation, including a CDL training track and over 100 pieces of heavy equipment. This location allowed us to fully immerse the participants in a transportation experience. 

Aerial view of Central Lakes College West Campus – Staples, MN

After some morning coffee from the local coffee shop, Steve Hoemberg, Director of Outreach for the TCOE, and Judy Barka, Assistant Director of AgCentric, started us off with an interactive presentation on engagement strategies for promoting the trades. Their unique perspectives are a result of active outreach schedules that take them to over a hundred events each year in every corner of the state. Major themes of the presentation involved best practices for getting instructors and industry partners to feel more comfortable with recruiting, the importance of service-oriented relationship building, and tips for more engaging career fair booths. Intentionally, this initial portion of the day allowed for interaction between participants and flowed into a working pizza lunch (from a local shop, of course) where, as one participant stated, “It was a great mix of discussion and mingling. I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with others that promote and support careers in transportation!”  

Morning presentation with Steve Hoemberg and Judy Barka

For the two-plus hours following lunch, the fully hands-on portion of the event took place throughout campus. The a la carte design of the afternoon provided participants with the opportunity to move freely from each activity to explore as much or as little as they liked. The activities included flying drones, an interactive torque demonstration, excavator and bulldozer operation, semi-truck ride alongs, welding, and two fully electric Ford Lightning pickup trucks.  “The instructors were really engaged, and they talked about their experience with students. They shared their own personal journey to their chosen careers. I felt they really cared about the quality of their work and their teaching.” said one participant when asked about the experience.  Each activity was facilitated by highly qualified industry partners, and instructors from Moorhead Career Academy, Northland Technical College, Hennepin Technical College, Central Lakes College, Mills Ford and Ford of Hibbing, all of whom graciously donated their time to help that afternoon.  When asked about their favorite part of the day, another participant commented, “Hands on tasks! Increased my existing appreciation for trades and gave me new ways to think about getting people interested.” 

Increased my existing appreciation for trades and gave me new ways to think about getting people interested

Our final experience of the day happened at a local restaurant and event center with a panel of six young professionals in the fields of agriculture, aviation, health care, trades education, project management, and transportation. This panel was all about open and honest stories about choosing their careers and the colleges they went to. The stories had common themes around college and industry visits, meaningful connections with instructors, and unexpected interests. What we learned was interesting – these former students did not pick the college they went to based on marketing, but instead on human connections. They all picked their college based on experiences from friends and family, not because of ads they ran across. Authentic and engaging discussion between panelists and influencers lasted for the better part of an hour before giving way to a taco bar and eating in community with each other.  

Young Professionals Panel at Timbers Restaurant and Event Center – Staples, MN

Post-event participant surveys reinforced what was felt throughout the day – the event proved to be a very meaningful and valuable experience for everyone. “Great mix of presentation, discussion, lunch and mingling, and hands-on activities. Never stagnant.” was a comment from one of the participants. In addition to the eye-opening experiences and interaction, the event’s authenticity gave it the feel of a working social event. Participants shared the joy of the experiences with both new and existing friends, often remarking about how much skill and intelligence these careers require. They also freely shared their triumphs and challenges, and openly discussed helpful resources, best practices, and opportunities for future collaboration. Event organizers Cassidy Jelen, Project Coordinator for the TCOE, and Steve Hoemberg are grateful for all the participants, facilitators, and college partners who helped make the day possible. It truly was an example of collaboration and human-centered design. We are already looking ahead to an opportunity to do something like this again. 

Great mix of presentation, discussion, lunch and mingling, and hands-on activities. Never stagnant.

Thank you to all who made this day a success: Central Lakes College’s Heavy Equipment Program Judy Barka from AgCentric, Ford, Andy Thul from Hennepin Technical College, Dennis Miller from ASE, Chantz Rud and Jeff Schneider from the Moorhead Career Academy, and Zackary Nicklin from Northland Community and Technical College.