BROOKINGS – The construction industry is one of a rare few where someone can get a job fresh out of high school and learn all the necessary skills through apprentice training, on-the-job experience, and creative further education that is tailored to each employee’s needs and circumstances. 

 Courtesy photo: Brian Schmidt, superintendent, and Phillip Gilliland, tradesman, work with steel studs at Lake Area Technical Institute as Mills Construction builds the Prairie Lakes Healthcare Center of Learning in Watertown. Gilliland is a recent graduate of the building trades program at LATI and continues to further his education while working and being enrolled in the Apprentice to Journeyman program at Mills Construction.

“Mills Construction is supportive of education after high school that is tailored to each person’s unique needs and circumstances,” said Randy Hanson, owner of Mills Construction. “Some of our employees come to us right out of high school, and we enroll them in our Apprentice to Journeyman program; some further their education or come to us with a two-year technical college degree; others further their education more or come to us with a four-year university education. 

“There are several paths for our employees to pursue their career goals here at Mills Construction. Further education and skills-based learning is very important to us and our industry, and we make it easy for our employees to pursue the best path for them.” 

Brian Schmidt started as an apprentice with Mills Construction back in 1990. He didn’t have a lot of skills or knowledge of the trades back then, but he was dedicated to working and learning mostly from his co-workers and supervisors over the years. Schmidt now serves as a superintendent and has over 29 years of experience with the company.

After 22 years in the industry, Chris Christopherson says he has completed a range of different projects across eastern South Dakota. Christopherson came to Mills Construction with a two-year tech college degree from LATI in Watertown and worked as a tradesman in the early years. 

He continued his commitment to lifelong learning by enrolling in the AGC Apprentice to Journeyman training program at Mills Construction. Through the combination of school and hands-on learning from his peers, Christopherson now serves as a superintendent. Christopherson isn’t alone, many construction employees work their way up the ranks and gain more skills over the years.

“I would say most of our employees acquired their skills on the job and through one of the paths of our further education options. A lot of our highly skilled carpenters, for example, started out as a semi-skilled or a low-skilled employee when they were 18 and 19 years old and learned on the job,” said Paul Sahr, operations manager for Mills Construction.

Mills Construction offers an apprenticeship program authorized and sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Associated General Contractors. 

In this program, employees earn while they learn. Instead of taking out thousands in college loans, apprentices work and earn a paycheck during their training.

Now employees like Schmidt and Christopherson want to return the favor to younger employees. They welcome them and enjoy teaching and mentoring them as they work together on their crews.

Sahr says that there will always be a need for construction trades personnel – it’s a job that will likely be around forever. “I don’t think there’s any question – a job like a carpenter, concrete finisher, equipment operator, steel erector, etc. will never be fully automated. The cost to create a machine that can accomplish what a skilled craft person can do would be enormous, if even possible. Those positions cannot be replaced by machines,” Sahr said.

For the most part, all someone needs to get started is a high school degree, a willingness to learn and an interest in working with your hands. 

“Somebody who likes to feel a sense of accomplishment every day and wants to stay healthy and fit and work on a supportive team that encourages lifelong learning,” Christopherson said.

Right now, Sahr and Christopherson agree with the state and national data that the demand for new construction workers across the nation is high and will continue to rise.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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