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'Demo Day' lights the spark in people who dig construction careers

The work was light and the mood even lighter at Demo Day, a first-time event staged by the recently formed North Dakota Construction Leadership Council. The demonstration day, designed to raise public awareness about the perks of construction-related occupations, attracted about 15 high school students and 50 adults.

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Central Cass (N.D.) High School student Garrett Gehrke drops a basketball into a bucket 13 seconds after lifting it from a construction cone during Demo Day, Thursday, April 29, 2021, General Equipment & Supplies, Inc., in Horace. High school students and adults were able to test drive an excavator, remote-controlled skid steer, bulldozer and crane during the event sponsored by the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota to generate interest in the work. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

HORACE, N.D. - Participants were at General Equipment & Supplies, Inc., near Horace, Thursday, April 29, for a heavy-equipment demonstration day. But for the hulking construction machines parked at General Equipment's Demo Yard, it was more like a spa day.

Instead of moving heaps of snow, the skidsteer's main duties consisted of scooping a basketball off the top of a construction cone, then whirling around to dump the ball in a 5-gallon pail.

And instead of hoisting up steel girders, the 165-ton mobile crane plucked a plastic Santa lawn ornament out of his wooden sleigh and popped him into a fake chimney.

The work was light and the mood even lighter at Demo Day, a first-time event staged by the recently formed North Dakota Construction Leadership Council. The demonstration day, designed to raise public awareness about the perks of construction-related occupations, attracted about 15 high school students and 50 adults.

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NDCLC members invited attendees to try their hands at operating heavy equipment such as skidsteers, an excavator, a bulldozer and a 165-ton mobile crane. Attendees also heard a short presentation by NDCLC President Brittany Diederich about the ever-rising wages and benefits in a field that is hungry for workers.

"One of the biggest issues for our industry is a workforce shortage," Diederich said. "People aren't joining the trades like they used to, which is part of the reason that the cost of labor keeps driving up. It's supply and demand."

Diederich's presentation showed what different trades in the industry can make when factoring in Bacon-Davis Wages - federally mandated wages for federal construction projects. That translated into $42,000 a year for a basic, entry-level laborer who would only work 34 weeks out of the year, she said.

But perhaps the biggest persuasion point on Thursday was the chance to operate heavy machinery. Diederich described that key moment when someone sits behind the wheel and first successfully operates one of these massive machines: "It's like a spark just goes off and it's fun," she said.

James Joyce, a student at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, seemed to have caught the spark. Joyce said he was already eyeing a career in construction when "my teacher told me about it. I saw the opportunity and I thought it would be really cool to try these machines. And I really like it."

Several high school students quickly mastered the equipment. When NDCLC member Molly Swanston challenged participants to scoop a basketball off a construction pylon with their skidsteer bucket and then drop it in a pail, one student did so in 13 seconds.

But adult participants seemed just as engaged. An IT specialist by training, Henry Lytle was excited when he got to use the biggest equipment in the demo yard - a 165-ton mobile crane - to drop Santa in the chimney, then return him back to his sleigh.

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"It takes a developed skillset, but once you get the hang of it, with the instruction you need to run something that big, the confidence comes pretty quickly," he said.

So would he ever consider a career change? Lytle laughed. "Yeah," he said. "I'm getting there."

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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