Justen Unrein is pretty sure he’d like to be an engineer. The Billings Senior High senior reckons he’s good at math, and his dad recommended the field.
But he hasn’t had a chance to sit down and talk to an engineer, even just for simple questions.
“I want to ask if they like their job,” Unrein said.
Unrein was one of hundreds of high school seniors from Billings and surrounding high schools that attended a career fair at the MetraPark Montana Pavilion on Tuesday. The event, organized by School District 2 and local businesses, was the first of its kind.
It was geared toward a wide range of kids — those who know what they want to do but aren’t sure how to get started; those who don’t have the foggiest idea; and those like Unrein, who have an idea, but could use more guidance.
School District 2 superintendent Greg Upham has often advocated for more focus on pathways like apprenticeships that require some kind of higher education but not a four-year degree. He talked Tuesday about how often colleges or military recruiters visit schools, while business owners rarely have those same opportunities — something he said needs to happen more.
“It’s no one’s fault,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Events like the career fair help that shift, he said, which is even more important as baby boomers continue to retire and industry leaders, especially in trades, are apprehensive about worker shortages.
Jeff Scherr, who owns Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning with his brother, was one of the employers at the event. He’s troubled by how little kids know about the trades, including his.
“Honestly, I don’t think they’ve had any exposure to it,” he said.
He’s worried about what happens when a wave of experienced workers retire, including at his own business.
Working on cars is a puzzle for Seth Hawkins.
“Finding apprentices that want to stay is challenging,” he said.
Scherr sees part of the solution in education — a shift where schools emphasize trades alongside college, not just the four-year college route. He also thinks the industry has to adapt to a different mindset that kids already have about feedback on their work, especially about recognition for good work.
“When I was younger, no news was good news,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t take criticism, but they do want to know when they’ve done well.”
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The career fair wasn't devoid of higher education representation. Montana State University Billings and several two-year community colleges from the region were present, many of which have programs that focus on trades.
Students also attended breakout sessions about different fields.
Mike Follett, an administrator at Billings Clinic who’s trained as a physical therapist, emphasized the wide variety of jobs that healthcare encompasses, from finance to medicine.
“It’s not going away, and the demand for health care is only going to become stronger,” he said.
Follett got into physical therapy after he blew out his knee playing baseball.
Mystery Lamere-Nava, who attended the health session, likes the idea of working in labor and delivery, but isn’t sure exactly what path to take.
“I feel like I should have a plan, but I don’t know what I want to do,” the Senior student said.
She felt like she hadn’t had much exposure to actual career professionals during school.
“We have a little bit, but I feel like coming here makes it more known,” she said.
SD2 is moving toward emphasizing career tracks to younger and younger students. Only a few years ago, it was rare for underclassmen to attended the Career Center. This school year, about 100 freshman and 165 sophomores were enrolled during the first semester.
The district is also creating career pathways, course guides that would funnel students toward certain study areas with the goal of allowing them to advance into college-level work or gain workplace experience as upperclassmen.
Upham has also touted the concept of "failing forward" — that even if a student decides not to continue along a career path, it's better to figure that out in high school than in college, when students have taken on loan debt.
But, is it unrealistic to expect freshman to pick a career and stick to it? Lamere-Nava didn’t think so, despite the fact that she’s undecided.
“I think it would be an advantage,” she said. “Later on, I feel like it would be better to get into it early.”
More Billings high school graduates are attending two-year college and pursuing apprenticeship programs, according to a survey of 2018 grads.