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Lex Lewison has always been interested in cars and trucks, tractors, snowmobiles, four-wheelers — basically any vehicle with an engine.

"I was always into knowing how things work, and how they do what they do, and the why behind it," said the 19-year-old, who lives on his parents' farm in Owatonna, Minn.

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Lewison recently won a $2,000 Minnesota State Fair Scholarship — a new feature of an annual program dating to 1994. The fair and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation awarded $1,000 scholarships to 22 students who live in rural Minnesota or are studying agriculture in the metro area.

This year, a scholarship double that size was created specifically for "a person of any age entering a skilled trade career or furthering their training," the fair's management said in a news release.

With political attention focused primarily on four-year degree programs and the loans that often accompany them, the donors behind this program didn't want the people interested in craft-oriented careers to be forgotten. This is both a public and a practical nod of support.

Pine Technical and Community College automated systems technology students Chris Carty, right, and Wes Berens assembled control panels.
Pine Technical and Community College automated systems technology students Chris Carty, right, and Wes Berens assembled control panels.

David Joles, Star Tribune file

A veteran employee of Ron's Repair in Owatonna, Lewison has just returned to Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, Minn., for his second and final year studying automotive service technology. The program teaches skills ranging from wheel alignment to engine diagnosis to advanced driver assistance systems — the rapidly evolving technologies that empower newer cars to help avoid collisions by steering back when they drift into another lane, warning when a vehicle is in a driver's blind spot and braking when traffic ahead has slowed.

As those technologies continue to evolve, auto mechanics will need increasingly more complex skills.

"To have a successful career in the automotive industry now, you have to know how to do those things," Lewison said. "You're not going to figure them out yourself."

Actually, the same point could be made across a wide range of educational fields taught in trade schools, now often called technical colleges. Students prepare for jobs as clinical laboratory technologists, veterinary technicians, dental assistants, aircraft mechanics and more, in addition to more traditional trade roles such as plumbers, construction workers and electricians.

The sponsors of the State Fair's trades scholarship established an endowment to continue funding the trade school scholarships into the future. The sponsors, a couple, had a mix of vocational and four-year degree education themselves and had an appreciation for skilled craftsmen.

"The original idea for their scholarship came from an experience in an organization where all recipients were university or [four-year] college bound," said Danyl Vavreck of the foundation. "They found themselves asking, 'What about all the agriculturally related skills that don't require a college degree?'"

High ROI

For many students deciding on education after high school, a four-year college program is often the default choice, partly because a bachelor's degree has long been considered the best path to a higher income. Nationally, nearly three-quarters of all college students, or about 14 million, attend four-year schools. The remaining one-quarter, just under 5 million, attend two-year schools.

But the average cost of attending college has doubled in the 21st century, and a four-year degree does not guarantee higher pay, leading some to rethink assumptions.

"Not all great-paying jobs require going to college and not all college graduates end up in great-paying jobs," said Cameron Macht of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

DEED statistics show that some jobs for people with a vocational education or associate degree pay as much or more than those with four-year degree requirements. Median annual salary for a radiation therapist, for example, is close to $90,000; for an air traffic controller it's $163,237.

And technical school tuitions are much lower, often less than half — in some cases way less than half — the tuition for a four-year school. Graduates can enter their professional fields within two years after high school graduation, typically with less debt, if any.

"The return on investment you can earn when you go into these fields is quite high," said Joe Mulford, president of Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, Minn.

At Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., "40% of our students graduate with zero debt," said President Craig Johnson. "That flies in the face of people saying you can't afford college. We're the most affordable, the best value that you can get."

Macht said a technical education "gets you into the labor force more quickly, gives you another year of earning, puts you further along in your career path," possibly shortening the ascent to a supervisory position.

And many of their fields are in dire need of workers, Macht said. "There were two job vacancies for every person that was seeking a job in 2022."

Particularly high-demand fields include computer programming, cybersecurity, construction, welding and auto service, Mulford said, but added, "it arguably includes almost every program we have."

Grand champion steers

To be eligible for State Fair scholarships, applicants must be planning to participate in this year's fair — and not just behind the counter of a cheese-curd stand. They must be "a fair exhibitor, whether they bring in their sheep or goat or technology project or their vegetable or what have you," said Jill Nathe, the fair's deputy general manager.

Lewison has that part covered, too. He'll be showing a dairy steer, as he has almost every year since elementary school. His steers were named grand champions in 2021 and 2022 (note to city slickers: a dairy steer is a male Holstein, the most common dairy-cow breed).

He named this year's steer Sylvester, and, as with the others, Lewison has "definitely established some sort of relationship with him." But he also knows that Sylvester will be headed to the market before long. After all, the cattle are judged by how well they're suited to become beef.

"I just know off the bat that that's the outcome," he said.

His favorite part of the fair is hanging around the barns with all the other 4-Hers and their families. Lewison has made a lot of friends and enjoys the "small-town feeling" of the cattle barn so much that he doesn't even walk around other parts of the fair, he said. But after this year, he'll have aged out of 4-H membership.

"It's bittersweet, I guess," he said. "I've done it forever; every summer since I was in kindergarten I've had a 4H project. And next year I won't."