Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Exploring Jobs in Renewable Energy:
The Camps to Careers Program


Eriann Faris is Youth Program Coordinator with the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council, Marshall, one of the Camps to Career partner organizations

During the summer of 2011, southwest Minnesota young people with disabilities had the opportunity to join with other young adults to explore career opportunities in the fast-growing renewable energy industry. Through two three-day summer career exploration camps that are offered as part of an innovative program called Minnesota Camps to Careers, they gathered at Minnesota West Community and Technical College on both the Canby and Granite Falls campuses to try on careers in two critical segments of the renewable energy industry: wind power and biofuels.

Renewable Energy Camp Overview

Camp participants received hands-on experience, classroom instruction and professional career development guidance, including help obtaining internships to acquire real job experience and on-the-job training to build networks within the renewable energy industry, and help improving job readiness when seeking permanent employment.

The renewable energy sector includes careers in engineering, installation and repair, production, and construction, offering median wages ranging from $26,000 to $84,000 a year. “These are exciting, stimulating and high-wage careers and there’s a lot of opportunity for young people who are interested in launching themselves into an expanding industry sector,” says Cheryl Glaeser, Program Officer with the Southwest Initiative Foundation, one of the partner organizations in Camps to Careers. “Minnesota’s ethanol industry was projected to generate $3 billion in 2010, supporting over 8,000 jobs. The wind industry is also expanding, supporting nearly 3,000 jobs as Minnesota ranks fourth in nation for installed capacity.”

The Camps to Careers program began as Minnesota Manufacturing Camp in 2007 after a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) study revealed that manufacturers were experiencing a skilled labor shortage. With there being a high unemployment rate for persons with disabilities, it seemed to be a win-win situation to assist youth who have the skills and interest in manufacturing along a career pathway leading to great jobs with excellent pay. Since 2007, the program has expanded into other demand-driven career sectors across the state including health care, information technology, and business, and thus the name was also changed to Camps to Careers. There are currently nine regions that have teams of school and community organization personnel who come together to plan step-by-step career development opportunities for a wide array of youth, including youth with disabilities. Since 2007, DEED has supported 53 Camps to Careers programs that have served over 600 youth.

Brett’s Camp Experience

Brett Fleahman is one young man with a disability who participated in the 2011 Southwest Minnesota Renewable Energy Camps to Careers program. When asked about his experience with the program and his career goals, he shared the following thoughts:

Q: How did you get interested in the area of renewable energy?

A: I am a participant of the local Upward Bound program with Southwest Minnesota State University and Marshall Public High School in Marshall, Minnesota, and we had some discussion and activities that focused on career exploration. At one point renewable energy was mentioned, and it peaked my interest.

Q: Is there a particular area of renewable energy that’s of special interest to you?

A: Wind energy.

Q: In what ways do you think renewable energy is important in our country?

A: It helps save energy and can be used long term.

Q: What kinds of things did you do in the Camps to Careers Renewable Energy program?

A: We learned the vocabulary associated with a wind turbine, the dynamics of a wind turbine, and then we were able to build our own wind turbine. We were able to design our own blades and race when we completed our wind turbines to see whose manufactured the most energy. As for the biofuels camp, we too learned the vocabulary associated with biofuels and did a lot of experiments where we turned food into energy.

Q: Did the Camps to Careers program help you get an idea of some specific kinds of jobs that might be a good fit for you? If so, what are they?

A: Yes, the Camps to Careers program helped me to realize wind energy would be a good fit for me. I was able to realize that the information I learned at Camps to Careers has already put me several steps ahead the other freshman who will be enrolled into the Wind Energy program at Minnesota West Community and Technical College on the Canby campus. For example, I knew the vocabulary and dynamics associated with a wind turbine. That is exciting to realize that postsecondary education is an option for me. If I could complete the tasks the college instructor was requesting during the Camps to Careers program, then I could go to college and be successful. Plus I was more familiar with a wind turbine than those first year students at Minnesota West Community Technical College Wind Energy program.

Q: What have you done since the camp to pursue your interest in renewable energy?

A: I have decided I will attend the Wind Energy program at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Canby.

Q: Through your experience with Camps to Careers, and exploring renewable energy as a career path, have you learned any lessons that might help other students with disabilities who are thinking about what kinds of work they’d like to do as adults?

A: Yes, keep your hopes up and move forward. Anything is possible.

Future Career Camps

In June, 2012, another Camps to Careers program will be held in southwest Minnesota. This year the industry focus will be on dental assisting and health care careers and cover a variety of skill and education levels, with median wages in these growing industries ranging from $41,695 to $166,400. On June 19, the Minnesota West Community and Technical College Canby campus will host youth with and without disabilities to learn more about dental assisting. Dental assistants help dentists with patient care, office tasks, and lab duties. The increasing trend for people to keep their natural teeth will fuel the demand for dental services. Demand will also increase due to a higher emphasis placed on dental care in younger generations.

On June 21, the Minnesota West Community and Technical College Luverne campus will host youth with and without disabilities to learn more about allied health care. Health care is a growing industry in southwest Minnesota and a good long-term career prospect. Careers the students will learn about include radiologic technology, surgical technology, medical assisting, medical laboratory technician, phlebotomy, massage therapy, and so much more.