Bridging the Gap Between High School and the Workplace
We’ve got a problem. In our region and across the country, there are more job openings for skilled workers with technical certifications than there are applicants. This skills gap is hurting local businesses and creating a drag on our economy.
Of course, the flip side of this problem is opportunity. There are good-paying jobs out there waiting for those willing to learn and ready to earn.
That’s where the New Ulm Career Technical Education Center comes in. The center, which opened in August 2021, is part of ISD 88’s vocational curriculum. It teaches high-demand career skills and provides opportunities for students to explore different career options.
“Our job isn’t to make workers. Our job is to provide opportunities through school,” Jeff Bertrang said. “With opportunities like this, kids can make better-informed decisions about their futures.”
Bertrang is ISD 88’s superintendent and a former industrial arts teacher. He understands the challenges and opportunities this type of programming presents. Right now, he’s focused on the opportunities, such as helping students step into good jobs right out of high school.
“There are a lot of businesses out there that, if they see you have talent, that you show up for work, they will pay you well. You can get a good wage if you have a good skill set,” Bertrang said.
New Ulm’s CTE Center focuses on courses and certifications within the construction, automotive, manufacturing, graphic design and business sectors. Partnerships with local employers ensure coursework meets the demands of today’s workplace.
“In the end, they leave with credentials that they can take to a future employer,” Bertrang said.
A Community Effort
Businesses are clamoring for employees with technical skills, and high schools across our region are rushing to expand career offerings.
So when the Roger and Carol Ryberg family donated five parcels of land to ISD 88 for this purpose last spring, the timing was perfect. The property includes the former Windings building and parking lot. With 30,713 square feet of industrial space, it is ideally suited for the CTE Center’s needs.
ISD 88 took ownership of the building in March 2021, then rolled up its sleeves and got to work. With the start of classes looming just five months later, it required a community effort to quickly bring the center to life.
“Everybody is seeing the need for a skilled workforce. They want to get involved, so there are many great partnerships,” Bertrang said.
Numerous organizations, businesses and individuals pitched in with ideas, cash, equipment and labor, contributing more than $2 million to the cause. Their efforts are recognized on the donor wall at the entrance to the facility.
“The local Economic Development Corporation donated $750,000 for remodeling, and the Economic Development Authority put $100,000 towards startup to get it going. The rest of the people on the donor wall contributed to a capital campaign to raise $350,000 for equipment,” Bertrang said. “We’re so very thankful for all the people who put effort, money and resources towards this.”
ISD 88 has a three-year plan for ramping up the CTE Center to full capacity. By the end of the process, it will be serving high school students from New Ulm and surrounding areas, as well as area businesses and community members.
The success of the first phase, which launched the program to New Ulm High School juniors and seniors, is a clear sign that the program is welcomed by students and businesses alike.
“Year one was internal courses for our students to make sure we figured out the recipe, what works, what doesn’t work,” Bertrang said. “We started the first semester last fall with 60 students in classes. We thought maybe we’d get 30 and start slow, but 60 kids signed up. The second semester we had even more, with a total of 82 kids enrolled.”
Planning for phase two is underway. Public and private schools within a 20-mile radius will be invited to use the facilities starting in the 2022-23 school year. The third and final phase will welcome adults to the center for learning new skill sets, retraining and certification.
“Year three is figuring out how to get the community more invested in nighttime and weekend programming,” Bertrang said. “We want the building used. A lot of people put a lot of energy and resources towards this.”
If the center’s first year is any indication, the program is already a success.
“The student response has been very positive,” Bertrang said. “They are getting their hands dirty and learning to use industry-standard equipment. … They’re not sitting in a classroom, lined up in rows, listening to somebody talk. They’re actually doing things.”
Eagle Enterprise, Learning the Business of Business
ISD 88’s curriculum includes several business classes, including accounting, public relations and marketing. The culmination of all of these is Eagle Enterprise, a student-run non-profit business that operates out of the CTE Center.
“Eagle Enterprise started as a school program, but it’s grown to be so many things,” Bertrang said. “Schools can’t give out money to kids. So, the Eagle Enterprise 501(C)(3) was established, and CTE contracting goes through this group. It has its own board, which is separate from the school.”
Eagle Enterprise manages the sale of all products and services produced through the CTE program. Profits are distributed to CTE students in the form of scholarships.
“Students go out and build decks for houses. They put in chain-link fences for dog kennels and put sheds together on the construction side. Then there’s T-shirt and sweatshirt silk screening contracts, small engine repair services and manufacturing bike racks,” Bertrang said. “Students see that their input creates tangible output. That creates buy-in.”
The CTE business hub includes offices for estimating, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and marketing, which surround an open classroom area.
“They have their own offices. They come together for class discussions, then return to their different offices and work,” Bertrang said. “When a request comes in, the students put together the estimate and give the prospective customer the cost. They OK it or not; then Eagle Enterprise assigns it to a group, and production starts.”
Automotive and Small Engine Repairs
The automotive section of the facility is a large, open space equipped with lifts and an industrial size garage door for bringing vehicles in and out of the building. It’s used to teach ATV repair, small gas engine repair and autobody/automotive repair.
Throughout the space, students work in pairs and groups. An old Camero sits on a pallet with its engine torn apart, waiting for a young troubleshooter to resurrect it.
“The students here are learning how to take care of a car, from basic maintenance to tearing apart engines to cutting cars in half, shortening them up, and rewelding them,” Bertrang said.
Once students master the fundamentals, they are free to design their own projects.
“They learn how to use tools, organize the lab space and automotive basics first. Then, the next step is: ‘What do you want to work on?’ Which is their ultimate goal,” Bertrang said.
On one side, rows of lawnmowers, snow throwers, ATVs and snowmobiles await pickup after maintenance or repair.
“They had this shop full like it was a running mechanic shop,” Bertrang said. “They serviced them, invoiced them and shipped them back out again. It’s all part of the instruction on small gas engine repair.”
Construction and Manufacturing
The construction trades area is used for woodworking, advanced cabinetry, construction and contracting coursework. As we tour the space, it is filled with the sound of hammering as students assemble a small building.
“They’re learning construction concepts: building wall sections, learning how to make trusses for the roof and then sheeting the outside with plywood. Next, they’ll learn how to put siding on,” Bertrang said.
The manufacturing section of the center is home to fabrication, milling and welding classes. It is equipped with manual and CNC or computer-run mills and lathes.
“When they start the class, the kids learn to use the manual mills first,” Bertrang said.” From there, they learn how to code with a computer, make parts and then how to do mass production.”
The welding area features 18 welding booths with three-in-one welders for stick, MIG and TIG welding. Current projects include building bike racks and repairing metal dumpsters.
“RVS Sanitation contracted with Eagle Enterprise to fix dumpsters. Industrial dumpsters sit for a long time and rust out in the bottom. RVS provides us with the new bottom, and then our team cuts out the rusted bottom, installs the new bottom and then puts all the big castors back on again,” Bertrang said. “Eagle Enterprise makes $100 a dumpster for each one they finish.”
Senior Jacob Vogel has welded a dozen of these dumpsters himself. Each dumpster he completes adds $60 to the Eagle Enterprise student scholarship fund and expands his welding knowledge.
“It’s good stuff,” Vogel said. “I wanted to be in a course where I could learn lots of different forms of welding. Working with super rusty dumpster bottoms, I learned how to prep for welding and then make a product that’s useful for the next five or seven years.”
Over in the graphic arts area, senior Kortney Ulrich works with business instructor Theresa Mosher to clean a silkscreen station in preparation for a production run. Four silkscreen stations and a Cricut cutting machine sit ready and waiting. Merchandise, including T-shirts, shorts and hats, is neatly stacked and ready for sale in the next room.
Students in this area learn graphic and web design, pattern creation, product marketing and merchandising skills. They create some products to meet specific customer requests and others to sell on the Eagle Enterprise online store.
“We sell things, and that’s one of the things I want to do when I grow up, sell clothes,” Ulrich said. “But then, I also want to be a vet tech and a groomer. I want to do so many things.”
Luckily for Ulrich, many of the skills she’s learning will translate to any career. She’s learning various soft skills, including time management, teamwork and communication. She’s also honing her customer service and business skills.
“The CTE Center offers hands-on learning opportunities for all types of students and learning styles,” Mosher said. “This alone has made students successful by engaging them in real-life applications and career skills needed to become valuable members of the community.”
New Ulm CTE Center
208 N. Valley St
New Ulm, MN 56073
CTE Office: (507) 233-6172
ISD District 88: (507) 233-6187
Photography by Jonathan Smith