WORTHINGTON — Talented youths remain a highly sought-after product to fill an increasing number of job vacancies across southwest Minnesota and the Midwest.

This week, a record-number of exhibitors representing a variety of industries got in front of sophomores from high schools across the region to “plant the seeds” of a fruitful career.

A common theme among the 88 exhibitors during Wednesday’s Southwest Minnesota Career Expo at Minnesota West Community and Technical College was the need to react and further prepare for the impact caused by losing the baby boomer generation to retirement.

“The thing about losing the baby boomer (generation) is we lose all that experience and knowledge that goes with them,” said David Lasserre, president of the Millwright and Machine Erectors Local 548, which has approximately 40% of its members set to retire within the next 10 years.

That said, if there’s one silver lining, it’s that the “opportunity is now” for young people to get started in many hands-on careers, Lasserre said.

Multiple exhibitors representing manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, construction and other skilled labor industries across the area reported consistently experiencing job vacancies..

Diesel technicians was mentioned by numerous companies as a void, which according to Elizabeth Simmons, a recruiting member of Harrison Truck Centers, is a shortage being experienced throughout the country.

Recognizing that need, the Minnesota State system has developed a Transportation Center of Excellence, which aims to partner educational institutions with industry to enhance career exploration in a variety of transportation sectors.

“Every single one of these industries is hiring and the outlook is that they’ll need to continue to hire,” said Minnesota State Transportation COE Director of Outreach Steve Hoemberg of transportation sectors, which include automotive technology, aviation, collision repair technology, diesel, marine and power sports, technology education, specialty and professional truck driving.

Hoemberg said he’d like to see the stigma changed and for young people to learn the reality —careers in the transportation sector are fulfilling and meaningful.

Earn while you learn

Hoping to attract new recruits, many of the skilled trades industries offer opportunities for youths to receive on-the-job training straight out of high school through apprenticeship and internship programs.

The programs allow young workers to earn a decent salary and benefits and gain experience while accruing no debt.

The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers has long offered apprenticeship programs. According to Iron Workers Local Union No. 512 Business Representative Nate O’Reilly, recent construction demands have resulted in double the amount of apprenticeship offerings this year.

“Construction is booming right now and in southwest Minnesota, particularly with wind farms,” said O’Reilly, who has a crew gearing up to erect the Nobles 2 wind farm near Wilmont. “We need folks out here.”

The Laborers International Union of North America also offers apprenticeship programs for skilled laborers at its training center in Lino Lakes. A variety of training opportunities allow students to complete training certifications during months when seasonal workers have more time to be in the classroom.

Work is available, and some students are choosing to take advantage of it upon high school graduation.

According to public data reported by the Minnesota Department of Education, just less than a quarter of 2017 high school graduates across the southwest Minnesota region immediately entered the workforce upon graduation. The number of students entering the workforce to those enrolling in college in 2017 was a five-year high.

The expo, which has been hosted at Minnesota West with a number of area partners since 2002, also had a record number of students participate. Nearly 800 students came from Adrian, Edgerton, Ellsworth, Fulda, Heron-Lake Okabena, Hills-Beaver Creek, Jackson County Central, Luverne, Murray County Central, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Windom Area Learning Center and Worthington High School and Learning Center.