BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
DONNELLSON – With the need for skilled workers in the area becoming a focal point of economic and workforce development efforts, the Lee County Fair Board is doing its part to recognize that need at this year’s fair.
Brian Foecke, a Lee County Fair board member, has been working with area schools and trade instructors for the past six months to incorporate a Competitive Trade Competition, in which students can enter trade projects and win prizes at the fair.
Foecke said he’s been kicking the idea around for a couple years, but this year the competition became a reality after several manufacturing and contracting companies got on board to sponsor the event.
“This goes back several years with me. We were trying to figure out what we can do to get even more kids out to the fair. When kids come, parents and grandparents follow,” Foecke said.
“Over the last few years, visiting with business and industry leaders who know and see a shortfall in their trades and trades in general, we just started having some discussions.”
Those discussions were with prominent industry leaders such as Jenny Steffensmeier of Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing, Bobby Huffman of Huffman Welding & Machine Inc., both of Fort Madison, and Pat Jones of Jones Contracting Corp. of West Point.
Foecke said those conversations focused on the shortage of skilled workers who can fill positions that are open, so he thought the fair could be a vehicle to help showcase that work and its importance to the communities in the county.
Steffensmeier put Foecke in contact with an instructor at Southeastern Community College, who then hooked him up with instructors at area high schools in Lee County. Foecke then met with the instructors at Fort Madison High School, Central Lee High School, and Keokuk High School. Holy Trinity Catholic students can share in the FMHS programming.
“We covered all the schools and went around in January with flyers to promote it as much as we could,” he said. “We had a little bit of a late start, but there was interest initially from all of the instructors and from the students that were in the classrooms at the time we met with them.”
SCC came on as the overall sponsor of the contest and Steffensmeier and Jones also came on to help sponsor the event.
The board opened the competition to all county students in grades 7-12 and three categories: carpentry, welding, and drafting/design.
“We just wanted to open it up and see how it went. We may split it up differently next year,” Foecke said.
Milo Orton won the welding competition with a dog box that he welded out of aluminum. The box can be used in the back of trucks for safe transportation of hunting dogs. Bradley Sporkman won the carpentry division by constructing a dog house. Foecke said there were no entries for the drafting/design competition.
Foecke said Orton is going to SCC for welding and Sporkman is already in an apprentice program with Siether and Cherry.
“These are two fine young men who are entering trades programs in the area,” Foecke said. “We need to have more things going on to encourage these kids to explore the trades programs or the two-year vocational programs. A four-year college degree is fine, but it’s not for everyone.”
“When you and I went to college, we heard hundreds of times that college was the push, but in today’s world this is so far from true. We’ve gotta do a better job of letting our students know that these jobs exist and then help steer those that are interested in the right direction.”
He said his conversations with school officials and instructors revealed that schools are offering multiple trades and programs that teach hard skills.
“We do a great job at our local schools. There is some outstanding instruction going on, we just need to keep nudging that ball from every angle.”
He said the competition will be held again next year and the board will work harder to promote the program and trade fields.
“The main thing we know we need to do next year is start promoting it before the school year starts and encourage more kids to take a look.”