BILLINGS — As local companies and contractors struggle to find equipment operators, the organizer of DigIt Days at MontanaFair in Billings said he hopes the event will inspire the next generation of Montana builders.
“We've got to power Montana with our next generation of kids and what a better way than trying to have them connect with the equipment, learn about it, learn about safety while they're doing it and have fun," said Johnathan McNiven, DigIt Days organizer on Friday.
DigIt Days first kicked off with an event in Lockwood in 2019 that had four sponsors. The event took a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is bigger and better in 2021 with the spot at MontanaFair, a total of 20 sponsors, and much more equipment and activities, McNiven said.
DigIt Days was set up on the fairgrounds in about eight acres of space that used to be occupied by the Grandstands. The 71-year-old structure was demolished last year to make way for new MetraPark features that have not yet been decided.
There may have been plenty of kids running around at DigIt Days, but the event was designed for the whole family. During the event's Thursday and Friday run at the fair, anyone could get the opportunity to dig with a piece of heavy machinery themselves.
McNiven said the equipment companies are all hurting for operators and other types of skilled labor. He said he hopes DigIt Days will help fill some gaps in the job market.
"The feedback that I've been getting from all of them is, yes. We need help. We need those workers. We need those skilled trades. This is just a good opportunity to connect kids, adults, young adults and high schoolers with good paying jobs that are our there," McNiven said.
On the other end of the event, kids could search for treasure buried within a mountain of 360 tons of sand. Even after two days of rain, which turned much of the event space to mud, the event went on with plenty of families coming through on Friday. Admission to DigIt Days was free with the price of admission to the fair.
People could also see and touch a variety of heavy equipment, like a giant Caterpillar dump truck that was shipped in pieces all the way from Colstrip.
“Let's just say they didn’t come on the interstate. They had to go from Colstrip to Forsyth to Melstone to Roundup and then into the Billings Heights," McNiven said.
McNiven said the inspiration to start up the event came about five years after he purchased Yellowstone County News in 2014.
“I wanted to find some event that I could bring to Yellowstone County that wasn’t around and I had three criteria. Basically it had to be family oriented, have it be constructive and it had to be educational," McNiven said.
In 2019, the same year he started DigIt Days, he started up a nonprofit called Yellowstone Family with the tagline of, "support families, build communities." McNiven said DigIt Days acts as the sole fundraiser for the nonprofit and 10 percent of the event's proceeds this year will go to local trade schools for scholarships.