Students get hands-on experience with heavy equipment at Ziegler Cat in Shakopee

More than 40 high school students from across the state of Minnesota took the controls of a tractor loader backhoe at Ziegler Cat in Shakopee Saturday, April 30, and had an up-close look at career opportunities in heavy equipment operation and repair.

It was the second hands-on experience this school year for students in the Operating Engineers Pathway program run by Minnesota Virtual Academy and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Now in its second year, the Pathway program has seen higher-than-expected demand and has 181 students participating from 76 school districts. Of the 56 high school seniors enrolled, 22 have decided to pursue a career in heavy equipment operation.

The program’s success comes as companies report a shortage of skilled labor and as jobs in the trades gain attention for being meaningful careers at good wages — without the need for burdensome college debt.

“There’s never been a better time to be an equipment operator or a mechanic in this industry than right now,” Local 49 Business Manager Jason George told students April 30.

In addition to operating a backhoe, students at the Ziegler event inspected equipment, performed cylinder cutout tests, examined a field service truck and more.

“Ziegler and IUOE Local 49 share a commitment to serving our customers, employees and the communities where we live and work,” said Roger Gartner, regional technical instructor and recruiter at Ziegler. “Together, we introduced local students to the opportunities a career in diesel mechanics provides, including a rewarding job experience and competitive pay and benefits. We are proud to partner with IUOE Local 49 to support the next generation of technicians.”

Jenny Winkelaar, director of workforce and community development for Local 49, said hands-on learning opportunities are popular among Pathway program students and parents, with some traveling from as far away as International Falls to attend the Shakopee event.

“It shows there’s an incredible appetite for students and their parents to feel like they’re having a meaningful career pathway opportunity with industry and education,” Winkelaar said.

During the event, seniors had a chance to take the skills test that is a prerequisite to entering the Local 49 apprenticeship program.