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Virtual reality used to explore trade careers

Career Force brings a New Ulm-based nonprofit to town with a high-tech approach to finding work in the skilled trades.

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Rick Kruft of Park Rapids drives an excavator simulator, guided by Rich Shaffer of Duluth, an instructor with Big Ideas, during the skilled trade exploration trailer's visit to Park Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise
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A black and yellow truck came to Park Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 2, bearing a new-fangled way to introduce career seekers to old-school trades.

Illustrating the bright idea on the side of the trailer was a big light bulb with a hammer at the center. It’s the logo of Big Ideas, a New Ulm-based organization that travels the state, using virtual reality simulations to give people an opportunity to explore career interests in such skilled trades as welding, painting and operating heavy equipment.

Career Force

“We’re all about careers, getting people jobs and helping them get back in the communities, and helping employers get employees,” said Evie Fowler with the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (RMCEP). “We heard about this, and it’s like, ‘We’ve gotta do this.’”

Fowler is a team leader with RMCEP’s Career Force center in Wadena, which serves Hubbard, Todd and Wadena counties.

Asked what brings their clients to them, she said lots of things – “losing their job by no fault of their own, a change of jobs, wanting to go to school now instead of doing what they do, COVID. Some of them come through programs with the counties.”

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The 53-year-old program helps with resumes, cover letters, mock interviews, online classes and job searches. “All these programs are free for everybody,” said Fowler, adding that they also help people identify other career interests if their job ends and they can’t find another like it.

She said the RMCEP used grant money to bring the Big Ideas trailer to all of its Career Force centers, with stops this week in Detroit Lakes, Bagley, Wadena, Little Falls, Brainerd and Bemidji. Then they invited their clients to drop in.

“That’s what’s initially set up for, but we certainly aren’t turning anybody away that wants to come and check it out,” said Fowler.

Case in point: Krystal Murphy, community career collaboration coordinator with Park Rapids Area High School, came to check out the simulators on Tuesday afternoon.

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Andrew Kish of New Ulm, lead coordinator of the Big Ideas trailer, explains during a Nov. 2, 2021 visit to Park Rapids how the organization uses simulators and virtual reality to give visitors a taste of skilled trades that might interest them, including different types of welding. Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Building interest

“Skilled trades have really helped me become a better person and have a great career in life, coming from no education,” said Andrew Kish, lead coordinator of the trailer for Big Ideas, a nonprofit based in New Ulm.

“Our mission is to reintroduce the skilled trades to people of all ages, to give them another resource in order to see if they have interest in it or give them another career,” he said.

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Noting that the education system has deemphasized skilled trades for a while, Kish said, “I’ve been a certified welder since I was 17 years old. I’ve been all over the state. I was in the military for four years. I got to travel the world. I met a lot of good guys doing welding.”

Showing another way skilled trades can take you places, Kish started as a laborer and progressed from handing tools to other workers to welding to being a foreman-supervisor to owning a business.

“It all depends on how driven you want to be,” he said. “It’s an amazing, very career-filled opportunity, to be in skilled trades.”

After selling his business, Kish volunteered with Big Ideas in January. He helped remodel an old MRI trailer into a teaching space and took it on the road in March, traveling to schools and career fairs throughout Minnesota.

He said Big Ideas works with workforce centers, community colleges and correctional facilities.

“Not only do we have the technology to spark the interest,” he said, “but we put skilled trade professionals in front of you that can actually help and teach and coach you through there and answer all the hard questions.”

Virtual reality exploration

The truck carries three types of virtual reality simulators used for training in the professional world – one for heavy equipment operators, another for painting vehicles and a third covering the full range of welding processes.

Alongside the trailer was a tent with TRANSFR VR virtual reality gear, programmed with hands-on training simulations to explore another 26 occupations.

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Kish said they use virtual reality to take away visitors’ fear of skilled trades, give them a first taste of what the work is like and, hopefully, spark an interest. Meanwhile, the truck enables Big Ideas to come to where people are.

Some of the simulated skills transfer to other occupations, he said, like the excavator simulation having similar controls to a Bobcat or a crane.

“It’s kind of like, you start a job and you continuously grow throughout it, knowing that there’s really no end to how far you can go with it,” said Kish.

Murphy said she found the Big Ideas program to be highly professional and educational. “Anything you can do to expose kids to the trades is always a plus,” she said, adding that it was cool to see augmented and virtual reality technology put to such a use.

Although she doesn't know if any local high school kids made it out to the Chamber of Commerce parking lot while the trailer was there, Murphy had advertised Big Ideas’ visit to students at PRAHS as an afterschool opportunity.

“I thought they did an excellent job presenting the information and teaching me how to experience it,” she said. “If we can get them to come to our area again, I’m definitely all for it.”

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The Big Ideas trailer parked for four hours Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 at the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, providing a free opportunity to explore skilled trade careers via virtual reality. Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Making the world go round

Kish said the organization’s website, www.BigIdeasUSA.org, has resources to connect people with trade schools, and they are working to add connections with community colleges. For now, he said, their five-person staff relies on a network of instructors from all over the state who have training and experience in a wide range of trades.

“It’s really cool, because you get all these different professions, so that you get all these different views,” said Kish.

Also cool, he said, is seeing young people grow interest as experienced tradespersons share their passion.

“I always tell kids, too, even if you have a plan to go to a four-year degree, work in the summers in a trade so that you can actually make decent money to pay that student debt off,” said Kish. “And then you take that skill set home with you.”

The trades make the world go round, he said. “Everything that’s built has a component in there somewhere that was built by a tradesperson, and then was delivered by a tradesperson.”

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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