Construct Tomorrow showcase steers high school students into trades jobs

More than a decade ago, Kate Zelko was finishing high school and looking for a stable career.  She found it in the trades.

"It's a perfect opportunity to kind of start," explained Zelko.

Fresh out of high school, Zelko started her own career as an apprentice with the Operatives Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ Union Local 633.  She learned how to lay and finish cement and has succeeded in a career as a woman in a trade dominated by men.  Now years later she’s teaching in what she describes as the local’s pre-apprenticeship program.

"It's just a five-week program.  So I'm teaching that and then I'll go back into the field during the summer months."

It’s that teaching skill that brought her to Forest Lake High School for the Construct Tomorrow clinic organized by the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.  More than 500 high school students from across the Twin Cities attended the clinic featuring craftsmen from different trades giving students demonstrations on everything from laying brick, to finishing cement, to operating a backhoe.

James Martin drove up from Eagan High School and was impressed by what he experienced.

"You know, you can see it all on TV and in commercials and stuff like that, but to experience it firsthand and with your hands, it's really cool," said Martin.

Construction jobs are booming once again with the recovery from the pandemic.  The latest data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development shows 7,504 vacancies in the construction and excavation sector.  And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates jobs in this sector will grow 8% by 2030.

Zelko says in her union, starting apprentices earn $29 an hour and grow when they complete their training after three years."

"Now you're doubling your money that you've already started off with from the beginning," explained Zelko.  "So kids stepping out of high school and something similar to what I've done, it gives you a good head start to be able to be financially good right out of the gate."

The strong wages and need for workers is part of the reason why the Trades Council is aggressively targeting high school students to consider a career in the construction trades.  The organization is holding nine Constructing Tomorrow clinics across Minnesota.

Zelko hopes that she can inspire a few of these students to join her, especially as the construction industry is growing.

"Hey, I've got a job for the rest of my life," Zelko said.