Skills GapAny successful effort starts small. It doesn’t start with a nationwide campaign or a company-wide program, it starts with one person – one person making an impact and changing a narrative.

The current skills gap and workforce shortages in the skilled trades are no different. We need people to be role models for the next generation of industry professionals – to share their personal stories, to share their individual successes, and to share their excitement for our industries.

That’s why I was incredibly proud and excited to join AEM agricultural services intern Lexy Frechette and my grandfather, Paul Feuling, a manufacturing technician, as presenters at a career fair held last month on Milwaukee’s south side.

Lexy, my grandfather, and I spoke with more than 200 middle school students, grades six through eight, sharing with them our passion for the agriculture, construction and manufacturing industries. We spent time answering questions from students about opportunities, education requirements (Yes, even in the trades, high school is important.), and what inspired us to pursue a career in our industries.

At our tables, we had three generations – The Silent Generation (which precedes the Baby Boomers), Gen Y (aka millennial), and Gen Z – representing the trades. Though we possess very different upbringings and childhood experiences, we've all been able to find professional success. Our stories were different, but they were still very much the same: Work hard, never stop learning, and don’t be afraid to get your hands a little dirty.

InsertAs guests of the career fair, we were also afforded the opportunity to share stories about our individual experiences and the truly rewarding careers we’ve pursued. Students were engaged and attentive, and they were excited to learn about our industries. Some students even came back to ask more questions after visiting with other guests of the career fair.

One student spent several minutes talking to Lexy about his potential interest in a career in agriculture. After visiting another table with a computer science professional, he came back and asked her how technology had changed in the industry, and how it would continue to change and improve in the future. He was interested in and curious about the advancements that technology will bring to the industry.

The three of us also were able to connect our industries to the students’ daily lives, to open their eyes to the significant role that agriculture, construction, and manufacturing play in our world, as well as shed light on the roles that – as young people considering their future career paths – could play in building momentum for those industries someday.

One student asked me if I was proud of what I do. I answered her with a very excited “Yes, I absolutely am.” And it’s true. I love what I do, and I love what we as as representatives of our industries do. We build the roads, make the machines, and grow the food that allows us to not only survive – but thrive – as a society.

While our collective effort to inspire 200 students at one school to consider a career in the agriculture, construction, or manufacturing industry can be described as “starting small,”  it did make an impact. More importantly, however, it helped change the narrative for at least some of the students about what it’s like to pursue employment in the skilled trades.

You can start small, too.

Endless opportunities are out there in your own communities – career fairs at elementary, middle, and high schools, speaking engagements and career scholarships at tech colleges, as well as sponsorship of community and non-profit organization events. Go find one and make an impact.

By seeking out an opportunity to serve as an ambassador for the skilled trades, you can speak directly to the benefits, the rewarding challenges, and the sense of pride that come with work in the agriculture, construction, and manufacturing industries.

As many of us know, it’s hard work, but it’s good work.

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