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Opportunity to experience skilled jobs draws over 7,000 students to Iowa State Fairgrounds



For Magnus Aljets, the opportunity to operate an excavator was a hands-on experience, but his heart lies in diesel mechanics.

No worries for Aljets, however, a freshman at Manson Northwest Weber High School west of Fort Dodge. The Build My Future event held Wednesday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds had opportunities to explore the diesel mechanics career path and many other skilled trades.

The 7,600 students from over 160 school districts across the state, had the chance to try their hand at occupations ranging from plumbing and heating to carpentry, heavy equipment operation, health care, aviation and even conservation technology.

More: These industries are adding thousands of jobs in Iowa in the next few years. See which.

Students from all over the state attended the event, with some traveling more than three hours, said Brandon Patterson of the Des Moines Home Builders Association, one of the sponsors of the day-long event.

The event, now in its fifth year, has more than tripled in size as students seek well-paying alternatives to fields that require increasingly costly four-year college degrees.

Patterson said hands-on opportunities for welding tends to be a big draw for the students, as well as operating large equipment, whether it’s the real thing or a computer simulation.

“The students always love all of the hands-on activities, which is what this event is all about,” he said. “Adding in new career pathways like health care has opened up more opportunities to get your hands on those careers, as well.”

At one employer, an in-house ‘university’

While some students were busy in the Varied Industries Building trying their hand at welding or nail gunning plywood panels, others, like Aljets, were in the parking lot having a go at operating heavy equipment or smoothing freshly mixed concrete.

Like most of the participants trying the excavator, Aljets had little problem using the machinery to pick up and stack rubber tires. For his goal of becoming a diesel technician, he said, he’s looking at apprenticeship programs that offer training, experience and the needed tools of the trade.

More: Iowa’s number of construction jobs is higher than it’s been in over three decades

Those three elements ― training, experience and tools ― are exactly what Housby University is offering. The Housby Equipment dealership in Ankeny offers the in-house training program to recruit often hard-to-find diesel mechanics.

Establishing the year-long mechanics training program “grew out of necessity” as the company struggled to attract qualified applicants, said Harrison Mayer of Housby.

Housby University, housed in the company’s new state-of-the-art facility, provides all class materials, a monthly housing stipend, all class materials, a free toolbox and toolset and a guaranteed job at completion.

The Housby program is completing its second years and requires a two-year employment commitment in return for the training and tools, Mayer said.

And unlike other post-high school educational pursuits, students coming out of Housby University will be debt free as they start their career, he said.

Events like Build My Future give his company an opportunity to get their training program out in front of interested students, he said.

Aaron Slota of Housby, which provided the excavator, had an explanation for why the students performed well with the machinery.

“It’s all joystick-operated like video games, which helps,” he said.

Mass job fair an advantage for both students and employers

Many of the businesses represented at the event on Wednesday particularly pointed at commercial drivers still being at a premium.

Nick Ripley of Manatt’s Inc., a concrete and paving contractor based in Poweshiek County’s Brooklyn, said that while the company’s ability to hire has improved as of late, it’s still looking for drivers. The Manatt’s website on Wednesday listed more than 25 opening.

“Across the whole industry, an experienced driver can make $75,000 a year,” Ripley said.

The Build My Future event has attracted about 22,000 participants in its five-year run, growing from 2,100 in its initial year.

“We had one company that was able to attract 30 apprentices at last year,” Patterson said, pointing out the efficiency of getting that large of response from a single event.

“For companies, it’s a lot more attractive to be able to reach this many people at one event as opposed to having to attend multiple job fairs,” he said.

Kevin Baskins covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at

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