By Steve Hoemberg
Director of Outreach
Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence
Friday, September 13th was a soggy and cold day in Mankato as we set up for the first of a two-day event called Dig It! Day one required the use of an alternate site as crews worked all day to remove soggy topsoil from the farm field where students and the general public would be experiencing all things construction and heavy equipment related. Appropriately, Friday the 13th was shaping up to be pretty challenging, with weather that felt like an average day on the set of the hit t.v. show “Deadliest Catch!” And our Career Exploration Trailer was the relief that nearly everyone was envious of, as they struggled to keep their tents on the ground and they chased their promotional materials across the windy parking lot. That trailer would prove its worth in other ways that day as well. You see, without the space to host our partners, we would have never met the Perez family and Mathiowetz Construction Company. So inspired by the day, and the conversations I witnessed between our college and industry partners, I can’t help but share the story!
Let me set the stage: hurricane-like weather outside and staff from Central Lakes College (Staples Campus) has traveled all the way to Mankato with a hands-on excavator simulator that is set up in the back of the trailer. Brett and Chad Mathiowetz are there from Sleepy Eye (MN) with industry surveying equipment – both old and new technology, as well as soil samples for students to explore and question. I have the trailer – a 46’ tri-axle behemoth, with plenty of space to share with our friends who would otherwise be quite literally left out in the cold. As hundreds of students from area schools cycle through the rig, I watch as Brett and Chad speak intentionally and inspirationally about the importance of what they do, including how students of all kinds have a place in the industry. In a skillful, veteran-like move, Brett expounds on the importance of partnerships with “Minnesota State” and “the Central Lakes College Heavy Equipment program” and just like that he passes the conversation to John Maleski and Anji Mousseau. Maleski is a heavy equipment instructor at Central Lakes College, who has a clear knack for getting students engaged in his conversation. Anji is the Central Lakes College Heavy Equipment Program Coordinator, and the go-to person everything that needs to happen in support of the program, including securing the simulator for events.
Proudly (and hilariously) John raises his decade-old flip phone for the trailer full of high school students, and then explains how the industry is rapidly changing it needs students like them who can navigate technology. Soon students are given time to mingle with these professionals, and the trailer erupts with students trying their hand at the simulator, and conversations about the unique opportunities that not only the CLC college pathway can provide, but the facets of life as a heavy equipment operator. To my surprise, in the mid-morning the trailer gained two more employees from the Mathiowetz Construction Company. I was already feeling like things were going pretty well, but this was a game changer! Now the presentation involved mom and daughter combo, Toni and Catalina Perez, with their bubbly personalities and no-nonsense proclamations about what the industry meant to them.
Toni (mom) is an estimator for the company, and Catalina (one year out of high school after graduating early with honors) is a laborer and heavy equipment operator. The trailer now featured industry and college partners or all ages and levels of experience, engaging with students about opportunities and triumphs and challenges and dreams. I realized that there were some very special things happening, and I was going to need to tell others. Recognizing that after the event, some of us would have to go our separate ways, I asked all the involved parties if they would answer some interview questions over email that I would send on Monday. They graciously agreed, and now we all get to know more about these very exciting and special people!
Interview with Toni Perez, estimator, Mathiowetz Construction Company:
S.H.: What is your role with M.C.C. and how long have you been working there?
T.P.: I have been with Mathiowetz Construction for three years. (I grew up in the construction industry) My first construction season I was an equipment operator. The winter of 2016 I started estimating. I’ve been building my skills as an estimator since.
S.H.: When Catalina was growing up, did you ever think she would be a heavy equipment operator?
T.P.: I can’t really think of what she wanted to do when she grew up. It changed often. I guessed I never clung to one idea, because I knew Cat would find her own path. I just focused on presenting options and opportunities when I could, confident that she would work hard at whatever she chose. Catalina graduated early and with honors. I knew that same attitude would follow her into her career.
S.H.: Is there anything you would like to say to parents of students considering careers in the construction industry?
T.P.: Have an open ear. Listening is the best support you can give. It’s a tough industry, but it has great opportunities and potential. I can honestly say that after last Friday, Cat is planning to visit the CLC Heavy Equipment program and is considering enrolling. I can see how that would be good for her.
S.H.: Is there anything else you want others to know?
T.P.: As women we need to fight for equal opportunity and equal pay. We need to also make sure that is not just a cute idea, but a strength that we can carry and pass along to the next generation.
Interview with Catalina Perez, laborer and heavy equipment operator, Mathiowetz Construction Company:
S.H.: What kind of high school student were you? Any favorite school activities?
C.P.: In high school I graduated a semester early and with honors. All I did was homework and work. I would clean houses, nanny, teach art classes, work with my dad at his lawn care company, and worked at McDonald’s all at the same time. Both of my parents are the hardest workers I’ve ever met and that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. A hard worker.
S.H.: Growing up, did you always want to be a heavy equipment operator?
C.P.: Growing up I never imagined being a heavy equipment operator. I just knew I wanted to make a lot of money.
S.H.: What’s the best part of working for M.C.C.?
C.P.: The best part about working for MCC besides the money and winters off is how powerful I feel. I am a small woman on crews of men trusted and expected to do the same work as them. My foreman’s never expect anything less of me and know I can do the job. I’m never treated like I wouldn’t be capable of doing something because I’m smaller or a woman. In the winter the mechanics love when I come to the shop to learn more about the equipment so I can be a better operator. I can do anything the men can do I just sometimes need something to stand on!
Interview with Brett Mathiowetz, co-owner and Vice-President, Mathiowetz Construction Company:
S.H.: Catalina says she loves her job. Can you tell us what her job was to start with and what it is now?
B.M.: She started as a support equipment operator. She started running compaction equipment and slowly evolved into assisting with flagging operations and parts running. She has also helped on pipe crews. She continues to grow each and every week.
S.H.: What are some of the “modern skills” that young people bring to your industry?
B.M.: They bring energy and enthusiasm. Young people have a different perspective that, if tapped into, can help evolve trains of thought and processes and take them to a whole new level. Their grasp of technology and digital processes also tend to be very valuable in our time of digital accessories and innovation.
S.H.: The Mission of your company is to “continually improve Family & Community.” Not all companies have a Mission like that. Can you talk a little more about that Mission, and how it effects your employees?
B.M.: This mission lies at the core of all we do. Our work is in itself, improving the communities we work in. These projects are making safety improvements, new expansion areas, creating jobs with businesses, etc. This is only part of our mission. The other part, is to improve our families. As a family owned business, we treat our employees like family. We want to see them improve and grow. We not only support their growth here within our company, but we do our best to encourage and foster growth for them at home as well. When they are able to provide for their families, and especially when they can realize their dreams, it is an exciting time for us to help make that possible for them.
S.H.: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of your partnership with Central Lakes College?
B.M.: They have been a great partner for a long time. We partner on career days and different industry gatherings, and recruit for them as well. We send prospects to them, and recruit from their classes seeking individuals to join our team. They do a fantastic job preparing the kids for what lies ahead in their journey down a career path.
Interview with John Maleski, heavy equipment instructor, Central Lakes College (Staples Campus):
S.H.: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of industry partnerships, like the one with Mathiowetz construction?
J.M.: Partnerships are a great opportunity for our students. When CLC partners with local hometown contractors, it gives our students the ability to come to us for an education, and then return back home to be employed by that local contractor.
S.H.: At the Dig It! event we met a really cool young operator named Catalina Perez. Could you talk a little bit about your program and the kinds of students that have the most success?
J.M.: The Heavy Equipment Operator program at Central Lakes College is the only one of its kind in the state of Minnesota. Here we teach students entry level skills to make them successful in the industry. They are exposed to various pieces of construction equipment, and also obtain the skill to perform preventive maintenance procedures on the equipment. While attending this 64 credit program, students earn their Commercial Driver’s License, Minnesota Aggregate card, OSHA 30 card, and First Aid CPR/AED card. The majority of our students are hands-on type learners.
S.H.: Some people go directly into industry from high school. What would be some of the benefits to studying first in your program?
J.M.: Industry partners have told us that they like the maintenance skills our students obtain, along with their Class A license and OSHA 30 card. The fact that they have learned a variety of skills on various pieces equipment is also very sought after. Our students have also already made a 2-year commitment to the industry which shows they are dedicated to this profession.
S.H.: Is there anything else you would like us to know about the heavy equipment program at Central Lakes College?
J.M.: This trade is typically thought of as a male dominant industry, but some of the best operators our program has graduated are females.
To learn more about the Mathiowetz Construction Company, Central Lakes College Heavy Equipment Operations and Maintenance program, or the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence, please visit the following websites: