November 17, 2023
By Lane Kimble
COLOMA, Wis. — They call it “The Arena” – a cavernous barn-like building with metal walls and dirt floors.
This week, you could have also easily called it “The Playground.”
“It’s great just to get them in the seat and you give them a couple pointers. I tell a lot of the kids it’s just like a video game,” Kevin Doucette said as teenagers climbed into mini excavators a few yards behind him.
That’s because play – and a safe, hands-on experience – are the most important things at the Operating Engineers Local 139’s “Externship Days.”
Monday through Wednesday this week, operators showed upwards of 1,000 high school students from all across Wisconsin that the transportation building trades are… well… pretty darn cool.
Kids toured the 400-acre facility in Coloma on a bus, heard from industry pros, and actually ran some machinery – under close guidance and supervision, of course.
“Next thing you know they’re pretty fluid with their motion and you can just see the smile on their face when it clicks, it’s like, ‘Holy, man. I really could see myself doing this!’” Doucette said.
The Operators have been hosting this event for the last seven or eight years. They used to travel to schools, but decided it was better – and a lot more fun – to bring the kids to The Arena.
Training in 2023 also means adding a virtual element. The “Simulator Room” provided a variety of vehicles and machines to “drive” with a joystick or video game controller. Stevens Point Area High School (SPASH) senior Gabe Roberts loved the mix of activities and experiences, noting any classmate who chose not to attend was missing out.
“Just being able to run it and look at everything, kind of get a feel for it… It’s pretty fun,” Roberts said.
Gov. Tony Evers stopped by, too, talking with students about their experiences in between the selfies and photo ops as the state celebrates National Apprenticeship Week.
Evers on Tuesday also announced a record-high number of apprenticeships (16,384) in Wisconsin’s 112-year-old program.
Those are encouraging numbers for people like Kevin Doucette, who hopes this week’s fun in “The Arena” will lead to some future workers in the field.
“It’s very rewarding just to let them know there’s opportunities here at any time. It doesn’t have to be 18 or 20 years old. It could be 30, 40, 50,” Doucette said.