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How Build Montana Benefits Contractors and Students to Jumpstart Careers

7 Jan 2023

According to McKinsey, the construction industry is short roughly 440,000 workers. Because that trend is expected to continue in 2023, many contractors are asking — How can we help develop natural talent and interest?

“The education system does a great job preparing lawyers, doctors and accountants,” said Adam Gilbertson, Vice President of Midwest Construction and Integrated Controls at RDO Equipment Co. “But we don't have a good path for young people who don't plan to get a four-year degree.”

Adam emphasizes that the construction industry struggles to recruit young talent because there isn't a strong networking community to introduce students to the construction industry.  

“Our Montana Equipment Dealership Association (MEDA) meeting centered around workforce development in 2019,” said Adam. “The biggest problem Montana dealers have is finding talented people to do the work. It's a pretty common theme around the country.”

Adam said he heard contractors talk about this same problem at the Montana Contractors Association meeting in Helena, Montana, in January 2020. So that's when he and others decided to do something about it.

“This program was created with a couple of key industry partners — Knife River Corporation, a heavy equipment contractor, and RDO Equipment Co. Both were integral in our technology and our investment efforts with the schools,” said Sarah Swanson, Director of Strategic Engagement for Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. “We created a pilot project called Build Montana.”

In 2020, Sarah helped launch the pilot program with six students in the largest school district in Billings, Mont. Montana Contractor's Association (MCA), MEDA, the MCA Education Foundation, Knife River and RDO worked with the school's Career Outreach Director to create a curriculum that offered hands-on experience and safety certification.

Everyone involved with the pilot continued vetting and planning the program in Billings, even as COVID-19 disrupted everyday life.

“Students trained on the John Deere University platform and received hands-on training from RDO team members,” Sarah said. “ After the students had mastered each skill, they'd go out for their experiential career opportunities on live job sites with Knife River Corporation.”

Students completed three months of online and site-based experiential learning. In addition to machine and job site safety, students learned machine components, function, operation and construction engineering and technology.

Sarah said that even with all the challenges of social distancing, the program's first year really made a difference. Two students completed the program and earned credit toward their level-one John Deere certificate. They also received a full-time job offer from Knife River Corporation after graduating high school.

“The Vice President of Knife River offered machine operator positions to these two students through this industry partnership,” Sarah said. “Positions with a salary starting at $50,000 a year that allows them to use their experiences from the program.”

Because of its success, RDO and partners brought the program to additional school districts, expanding to Kalispell and the greater Flathead Valley area.

“We realized that we can't fix this problem alone. We accomplished some great things, but this is an industry-wide issue,” Adam said. “As interested and aggressive as we want to be in Billings, we can manage four to six interns a year, and that isn't sustainable.”

Focusing on longevity and sustainability motivated program team members to partner with other companies including Caterpillar, Volvo, Komatsu and three more contractors. The program's success and additional partnerships led to Build Montana receiving the 2022 Associated General Contractors of America's National Chapter Workforce Development Award. 

Sarah has since transitioned from the program coordinator role but she says Build Montana is a beacon of how industry and education should come together.

“We're currently working with the Montana Department of Labor to help Build Montana to expand into 40 rural communities that don't have a dealer in their backyard,” Sarah said.

Adam says at the end of the day, it is about helping young people find success in the construction industry and making connections. Adam shared William's story from 2020.

“William is a good kid who didn't know what he wanted to do. He lived with his family in Billings, was pretty sure he didn't want to go to college and was considering applying at a big box store,” he said. Then he found Build Montana.

Knife River's Vice President Hal Fulgevand connected with William and took notice of his strong work ethic during his participation in the program. When an opening for a haul truck operator crossed his desk, he immediately thought of William. Soon Knife River offered positions to William and one other student. 

“William thrived in his new role,” Hal said. “The crushing and aggregate crews liked him so much they offered him a full-time position operating a loader feeding the crusher.”

William had proven responsible and disciplined during the program, and people noticed. Hal knew William could use an opportunity to continue building his skills.

“I think one of the really endearing parts of his story is how after he'd been here (at Knife River) for about six months, he made a point to tell me that he wanted to tell me how much he appreciated this opportunity," he said. 

Students enrolled in other districts have experienced this same success. In September, two Kalispell students, Joseph Barnes and Dennis Hunter were hired by Schellinger Construction. These school outreach programs are proving successful in educating young people about the professional, financial and personal merits of a career in construction.

RDO team members continue to partner with industry organizations and school districts to expand the program. In the Missoula, six students will start their journey with Build Montana beginning January 2023. Adam and other Build Montana program partners, said this opportunity creates vital connections for students.

“The most valuable thing we can do is provide our time. Because at the end of the day, it's that connection and building a relationship that matters, and knowing that this young person deserves an opportunity and a chance.” Adam said. “If you're going to be successful, you need to build relationship and pipelines — but don't forget to have a little fun.”

Watch Dennis Howard, Vice President of Equipment, and The Track's host discuss how businesses work with school districts to jumpstart careers in Montana. 

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