Workforce Shortage Looms Large

New Ulm-based Big Ideas Hopes to Bridge the Gap

The Big Ideas initiative in New Ulm actually started as a small seed of a concept a few years ago. Mary Ann Christensen of Christensen Farms in Sleepy Eye and Rebecca Fliszar, a registered dietitian in New Ulm, were starting to look at post-secondary options for their children who were entering high school. They found those options were actually quite limiting.

“We both identified a need within the community of New Ulm,” explains Christensen. “When researching the best options for post-secondary education for our children, it was quickly apparent that skilled trades were an area in great need throughout the State of Minnesota and beyond, yet these were not presented as a viable option to most students. Realizing that fewer students are exposed to Industrial Arts classes and trades in general it was determined that the opportunity to discover skilled trades was needed in our community.”

Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) back up their hunch. Skilled trades careers such as carpentry, welding, mechatronics, plumbing and electrical, among others, are in high demand in Minnesota. DEED is predicting a great shortage. They are jobs that pay well. Yet they are jobs that many students aren’t pursuing as they leave high school. To combat that, Christensen and Fliszar created Big Ideas, Inc. in January 2017.

The first phase of their business plan is to provide community education-style classes to introduce any demographic who wishes to try skills in different trades. Executive Director Rebecca Fliszar says trades have taken a social beating and a back seat to four-year degrees and white-collar careers. Furthermore, she says, ongoing decline in enrollment in apprenticeships and two-year programs means the workforce shortage will only get worse.

“We want to provide opportunities to discover, explore and learn real-world trade skills for ages 13-113 in a variety of trades, including: carpentry, welding, home maintenance, commercial sewing, upholstery, plumbing, electrical, and commercial cooking just to name a few,” says Fliszar. “Our intention is to provide a meaningful way to give people of all ages and stages of life the chance to try their hand at what may become a hobby, a cottage business, or a new career with classes that teach not only the “hard” skills associated with the curriculum, but also the “soft” skills needed to be successful in that trade.”

Not even two years old yet, Big Ideas is already seeing an impact on the community.

“The impact seen in the community is increased awareness of the current and predicted shortage of skilled tradesmen, the increasing attendance in our growing number of skilled trades classes offered and the growing number of communities throughout Minnesota offering the Big Ideas, Inc. curriculum. Over the summer, Big Ideas, Inc. sponsored a demonstration build at the Brown County Fair showcasing the amazing talents of the local carpenters of Starry Night Construction out of Sleepy Eye. This event was a huge success and anyone in attendance can attest to the talent and skill demonstrated by these carpenters. We have also partnered with the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota on both their in-house Exploration Station exhibit that targets pre-k to fourth grades, as well as their Dig It! Events offering students in grades 8-12  first hand exposure to heavy equipment and the construction trades. We believe that through this increased exposure, more students will consider skilled trades and realize the value that these positions hold in a community,” says Christensen.

Classes are taught at high school shops, FACS labs and at cooperating industries. For a listing  please visit Things are going well, but Fliszar says some challenges in breaking the stigma still exist.

“The biggest challenge is engaging students and instilling enough confidence to enroll in the classes. Once enrolled, most students find skilled trades challenging, rewarding, and applicable to their daily lives,” says Fliszar. “While we are currently serving most of greater Minnesota, we are looking to expand those borders to include the entire United States.”

The group knows they have a long way to go in turning things around, but believe they are off to a good start.

“Achievement is the continued growth of our curriculum. The expansion to other communities and outlets means that more students will have the opportunity to explore trades and realize how valuable our tradesmen really are,” says Christensen.

They know they can’t do it alone. Because the workforce shortage affects all business and industry, it’s important for others to partner with them.

“Big Ideas, Inc. is working to create a sustainable workforce currently as well as in the future. Businesses that see the value in this mission can partner with Big Ideas by providing materials, instructors, advertising support and any other form of support to drive students into our classes and promote the value of skilled tradesmen in our communities,” says Fliszar.

The group hopes to expand nationwide.

“We serve anyone interested in the trades from ages 13-113. We have had students of all ages and ability levels. While some students may have some previous experience and others have never tried a skill before, we use active tradesmen to teach our classes; these tradesmen have done an outstanding job meeting the needs of all students at all ability levels,” says Fliszar.

For more information or to find out how you can get involved, please visit

Here are some of America’s highest paying trade school jobs. (The cited per hour wages are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2017 estimates.)

  • Construction Manager $48.56
  • Rotary Drill Operator for the Oil and Gas Industry $27.01
  • Boilermaker $30.30
  • Aircraft Mechanic $30.07
  • Avionics Technician $30.60
  • Pile-Driver Operator $30.66
  • Plumber, Pipefitter, or Steamfitter $27.44
  • Electrician $27.84
  • Crane Operator $26.78
  • Wind Turbine Technician $27.25

Big Ideas, Inc. Board Members

  • Mary Ann Christensen – President/Co-Owner
  • Betsy Pieser – Vice President
  • Kaitlyn Pals – Secretary
  • Valerie Johnson – Treasurer
  • Joleen Koch – Specialist Project Urban Farming
  • Sue Sullivan – Specialist Project SkillSet Carpentry
  • Lynn Hacker – Specialist Project Urban Farming
  • Staff: Rebecca Fliszar – Executive Director
  • Jodi Forstner – Office Manager

Lisa Cownie

Editor of Connect Business Magazine