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Amanda Youngs wanted something better for herself than customer service jobs, but she never finished college.

So finding inspiration from her father, a longtime member of the laborers union, she one day searched the internet for "women in construction."

That led her to Building Strong Communities (BSC), a 12-week, multitrade program that prepares people for careers in the construction industry. Youngs graduated from the free program and began working in June as an apprentice with a local contracting company. Instead of running a cash register, Youngs, a member of Operating Engineers Local 49, now typically drives smooth drum rollers: huge pieces of heavy equipment that compact materials like gravel, sand and asphalt.

After four years, she will have completed her apprenticeship training and, as a journey-level worker, will be qualified to perform her trade without supervision.

"I'm 31 now, so I should probably plan more for my future," said Youngs, a mother of two who lives in Sandstone. "And that's what I'm aiming for. It's the right place for me."

With many contractors saying they can't hire enough workers, leaders of unions and construction training programs hope the industry will be the right place for more Minnesotans. Here is some advice on ways to establish a career in the construction trades and make six figures without mountains of student loans:

Constructing a career

More than 10,000 people are working in apprenticeships for building trades such as masonry, carpentry and plastering, according to the BSC. In December, Minnesota had more than 133,000 construction workers, an 8.8% increase from the year before and nearly triple the industry's growth nationally, per the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

Big state and federal infrastructure investments as well as the warmer winter weather have continued to drive the hiring push, according to DEED.

The three main avenues into construction careers are technical college, an accredited union apprentice training center or an apprenticeship training program like BSC. Applicants for the latter usually must be 18 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalent. The program also might recommend or require having a driver's license and/or reliable transportation.

Pat Wagner, executive director of the Construction Careers Foundation, said apprenticeships are earn-while-you-learn opportunities that provide immediate experience in a chosen trade through hands-on learning. A Minneapolis-based nonprofit, the foundation aims to diversify entrants into the construction trades and support them in their careers.

"There is no crushing college tuition debt, and a person earns money and great benefits from the start of their training," Wagner said.

Career options include working as a foreperson, superintendent, training director, business owner or safety director.

Most apprenticeship training programs are free, aside, in some cases, from the cost of books and a first set of hand tools. You might be able to find some financial assistance programs to help with that, though.

Before applying for an apprenticeship or preparatory program, Wagner recommended:

Exploring information about building trades on the Construction Careers Foundation's website.

Talking to people who work in construction.

Touring a union training center.

Taking shop classes in school or community education programs.

Volunteering with groups like Habitat for Humanity to develop skills.

Working at a hardware store to familiarize yourself with tools and materials.

High school students can find paid summer construction internships with the foundation's MN Trades Academy. Veterans can learn about careers through the foundation's Helmets to Hardhats program.

Lake Street Works, an after-school program that trains underserved high school seniors for construction-related careers, last week opened a $1.5 million, state-of-the-art classroom as part of the Urban Ventures nonprofit.

Free help

Wagner further recommended taking advantage of free preparation training programs, available at organizations including Summit Academy OIC, Karen Organization of Minnesota and BSC.

BSC is a statewide program that focuses on preparing women, veterans and diverse candidates for careers in the construction trades, Executive Director Rick Martagon said.

The first eight weeks are virtual, with craft curriculum from North Hennepin Community College faculty and emotional intelligence courses from Twin Cities Rise, Martagon said. The final four weeks involve hands-on training at apprenticeship training centers.

A "physical awareness day" at a training center shows students the "tempo and physicality" of various trades.

Apprenticeship training with no up-front cost is available in commercial painting, drywall finishing and other fields at the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest in Little Canada. The organization also has a Finishing Trades Academy for high school students.

Apply directly

You can apply directly to apprenticeship training programs at any one of 16 affiliated unions, which have about 40 locals across the state, said Dan McConnell, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Completing a preparatory program, doing military service or having trade-related experience can improve an applicant's ranking and odds of acceptance, McConnell said. Or you can try applying to a contractor that will sponsor you at an apprenticeship program.

To become an apprentice electrician, for example, you could fill out an application on the website of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 110, training director Tim Garcia said. The program lasts five years or four for graduates of two-year technical colleges.

"You're getting a scholarship to become an electrician in the IBEW, in a sense," Garcia said.

College route

Dunwoody College of Technology's building trades program includes two-year associate's degrees for electricians and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning workers.

"So many people are retiring, and we need people to fill in those slots," said Polly Friendshuh, academic dean for construction sciences and business at Dunwoody.

St. Paul College has diploma programs in pipefitting, plumbing, welding, carpentry and cabinetmaking.

"You can do many things in these trades," said V.A. Hayman Barber, dean of trade and tech education at St. Paul College. "Some might want to go into sales or product development or [human resources] or recruiting. This is such a viable academic and career path that can take you to a lot of places."

Challenges, rewards

Construction work, like other jobs, isn't without challenges, said Wagner of the Construction Careers Foundation. The hours can interfere with day care for families with children. Representation of women and diverse workers is lacking. Unions, colleges and employers, though, typically have programs to attract underrepresented groups to the trades. Some projects wind down in the winter, which can result in seasonal layoffs.

Certain trades might require working outdoors in extreme heat, cold or at high heights.

Construction work still carries a stigma for some who think college is the only way to a career, said Jack Roessler. He teaches construction and shop classes at the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture, a public charter school in Little Canada. For students who excel in his classes and don't want more classroom time after high school, trades can be a lucrative alternative.

First-year apprentices, Roessler said, can start at $30-$40 an hour while receiving health insurance, pension contributions and other benefits on top of that hourly wage. Journey-level electricians in IBEW Local 110 earn about $50 an hour, Garcia said, with benefits bringing their wages to nearly $85 an hour.

"If you look at it compared to getting your four-year degree and graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, vs. when you're 22 years old and working overtime, you can be making over six figures pretty easily," Roessler said.

Dunwoody students often find jobs in their first semester, Friendshuh said.

"They're making $25 to $30 an hour-plus while still in school," she said. "If you do a little traveling, you can make six figures a year or two after school."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is