Virtual reality trailer lets teens test out skilled trades

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A virtual reality roadshow making its way across Minnesota hopes to inspire teens to pursue careers in the skilled trades.

The New Ulm-based nonprofit Big Ideas features a Mobile Learning Lab with high-tech simulators, allowing people to try jobs such as welding, excavating and industrial painting.

“If you don’t know a career or a particular job exists, how can you choose it?” said Mary Ann Christensen, co-founder of Big Ideas.

Christensen said when her kids were considering career paths, there seemed to be a stigma around the skilled trades, that it was inferior to a four-year degree.

“So we started with just two moms saying, ‘How do we change the paradigm for these kids?'” Christensen said. “Now we feel like we’re achieving what we’re trying to do, which is just simply to open minds to the possibilities, to the choices.”

The Big Ideas trailer will be at 100 events throughout the state this year.

The virtual reality and augmented reality simulators provide an interactive experience, such as using a band saw to create cabinets.

“You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run, and this is where it all starts,” said Andrew Kish, Mobile Learning Lab coordinator.

Kish worked in the skilled trades as a welder and millwright for more than a decade. Now he helps guide people through the simulators and toward in-demand careers.

“If I change one kid’s mindset at every event, that’s my goal, just to open the horizon,” Kish said.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS construction has been one of the fastest-growing industries since the start of the pandemic.

There were 137,225 construction-related jobs statewide last year, paying an average wage of $77,250 per year, according to DEED.

State data from 2021 shows the job vacancy rate for cement masons was nearly 20%, construction laborers at more than 10%, and welders at around 8%.

DEED noted the average salaries for many of these in-demand jobs are also higher than people realize. For example, in Minnesota last year, the median yearly wage was $60,000 for carpenters, $81,000 for plumbers and more than $100,000 for boilermakers.

Big Ideas started its road show last year and expects to have reached more than 15,000 students by the end of this year.

“We know, when we engage hands, we open ears and we open brains,” Christensen said.

The Big Ideas Mobile Learning Lab will be outside Mall of America through Sunday.