Heavy equipment training for high school students launches at Wright Technical Center

Students are receiving hands-on instruction in heavy equipment operation — while earning both high school and apprenticeship credit — through a new program at Wright Technical Center in Buffalo, Minnesota.

A grand opening Thursday, Sept. 14, showcased the program and the “sandbox” where students can safely hone their operating skills. Industry and educational partners donated more than $350,000 in equipment, materials and labor for the sandbox and classroom.

Presented in partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, the program comes at a time when the trades are earning renewed attention as a road to meaningful careers with high wages.

“We specifically train students for a career, and we’re thrilled to offer this unique opportunity to explore in-demand jobs,” Wright Tech Principal Shaun Karson said.

Wright Technical Center is a cooperative public high school that serves eight member school districts in both Wright and Sherburne counties.

There’s already a waitlist for the heavy equipment program. The courses offer four semesters of high school elective credit and cover topics from equipment fundamentals to grade and construction math. Students who enter the Local 49 apprenticeship program after graduation will also receive apprenticeship credit.

The Wright Tech program is an extension of the Operating Engineers Pathway, launched in 2020 by Local 49 and Minnesota Virtual Academy. The Pathway is still available online to Minnesota public high school students at no charge and features multiple hands-on events each year. The Wright Tech program could serve as a model for future in-person programs with regional partners.

“We recognize virtual learning is not for everyone, so this is piloting an in-person opportunity for students,” said Jenny Winkelaar, Local 49’s director of workforce and community development. “We couldn’t be more excited about our partnership with Wright Tech. The impact on students could be truly life changing.”

Wright Tech “has been a stepping stone for many people in the area,” said Brian Lenneman, who attended Wright Tech and is now director of earthwork operations at Veit, one of the program’s industry partners. Lenneman hopes this program will help students discover an interest in the construction industry.

Program partners include: Ames, C.S. McCrossan, Neaton Brothers Erosion Control, Fehn Companies, Martin Marietta, Minnesota Virtual Academy, PCi Roads, Rachel Contracting, RDO Equipment Co., Stride Career Prep, Veit and Ziegler Cat.