Build Montana pilot program giving Billings students leg up in construction industry

Build Montana
Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 18:45:10-05

BILLINGS — Montana's construction industry has two problems - supply and demand.

There aren’t enough workers, or applicants. So the Montana Contractors Association is trying to solve both problems with one solution: a Billings-area pilot program called Build Montana.

“Imagine that I wanted to come work for you and I didn’t know anything about the machine," posed John Hurd, the program's instructor. "If you’re the owner, you’re like, ‘I have to teach you how to safely be around the job site, how to get around the machine.’ These folks are going to have a leg up."

The idea behind Build Montana's partnership with School District 2 is twofold. First, it’ll help fill a quickly growing need.

“Our biggest issue - if you talk to a contractor, you talk to equipment dealers across the state - we don’t have enough people to do the work," said MCA board member Adam Gilbertson. "We don’t have enough talented employees to complete the work we’re trying to do every day.”

Five juniors and seniors from Billings Skyview and Billings Senior are enrolled in the initial semester, and will focus on machinery, thanks to a partnership originating at RDO Equipment (Gilbertson is a Vice President with the company). It’s no surprise most are excited for the hands-on portion.

“John twas telling us that we’re going to have a Dig It day with Knife River, where we get into stationary equipment and just dig, so I’m looking forward to that," said Skyview senior O'Shay Birdinground.

But they also will have access to a unique classroom training method with universal applications.

“The underlying curriculum is going to be John Deere University’s online series around machines," said Gilberston.

The online school offers over 30,000 modules. That’s where the second reason for Build Montana comes in: giving students who don’t fit into the typical college mold a potentially profitable alternative.

“It opens more doors for me that’s for sure," said Birdinground. "Right now the goal is college, but if I can get a jump before then to help pay for college, that would be great. And it gives me something to fall back on."

“Give them a career lattice," Hurd said. "Give them the skills and opportunities for them to explore, and know they can have vibrant careers in the construction industry.”

“About half the kids that graduate high school in Montana don’t go on to two or four year college degrees," Gilbertson added. "We’ve got a great path for kids going to be doctors and lawyers, but there’s not a great pathway into what else is out there. So we’re hoping this program is an opportunity to open the eyes.”

Especially now. While COVID-19 has slowed many industries, construction isn’t one of them.

“We’re in a pandemic and jobs are challenging, but we’re still moving forward because the need is still great in the industry," Gilberston said. "As people are looking for what career they can find that helps me get through hard times, the construction industry has had to keep going and keep working.”

And it needs the next generation to come with it.