David Smith wasn’t shy about telling kids the advantages of getting a job in construction after high school instead of heading off to college.

“At 23 you can owe $60,000 in student loans — or you can be making $60,000,” said Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association.

Whether it’s driving a truck or running an excavator, Smith said, “If you have a good work ethic, any of these companies will train you.”

That was one of the big messages Friday when more than 500 eighth-graders came to Bozeman High School to learn about industrial career opportunities at the first “Building Bozeman” event.

At Bozeman High, middle-school students heard about a variety of job possibilities — from plumbing to computer security to surveying building sites with drones. Big construction firms, like Martel and Barnard, sent representatives.

Then students were bused to Gallatin High School to see trade jobs in action at the $93 million construction site and hear from the workers in hard hats.

This is all part of the Bozeman schools’ commitment to get students ready for both college and careers, said Marilyn King, deputy superintendent for instruction.

“We want students to have a full breadth of understanding,” she said, “to open their eyes to other ideas for careers.”

“I think it’s worth it because when you grow up you have to do something in your life,” said a Chief Joseph Middle School student named Colten. “This gives you options.”

At the Gallatin High construction site, students met LeiLani Nakamura, an independent painting contractor, who told them painting is a lot of work.

“I get the joy of spraying this gun,” she said, pointing to a spray gun that shoots out paint under 300 pounds of pressure. She said she also hoists an 18-inch roller, which is “pretty heavy — but I get paid to work out every day.”

“Obviously, it’s not just for boys or men,” Nakamura said and smiled.

Dave Johnson, construction manager with Credit Electric, told students there’s a big labor shortage in the building trades.

“They’re a great career choice,” Johnson said. You get to “own a home, go on vacation, buy toys. … We need smart people in the trades — it’s not a dumb guy with a hammer.

Bill Langlas with general contractor Langlas & Associates showed students a computer station where color-coded 3-D plans for the new school displayed where all the water pipes, electrical lines, ventilation ducts and everything else goes in the new school. We don’t use plans on paper, he said.

“You think of construction as hammers and saws, but there’s so much more on computers,” he said.

“I’m super passionate about the trades,” said Quin Williams of Williams Plumbing and Civil Construction. He said he worked his way through college working at his family’s plumbing business, and found there’s a lot more to it than unclogging toilets.

“I get to work on super construction projects,” Williams said. Plus the wages are rising fast. Starting pay is $33 an hour, he said, and supervisors can make over $100,000 a year.

At a table for Gallatin College, Justin Blackburn told students about the new computer security and network classes he teaches. Those fields are “exploding,” he said, and within a couple years, people can earn $100,000.

Randy VanDyke, Bozeman High assistant principal, said that the school was highlighting industrial careers at this event. Students got to tour the metals, woods, auto and engineering classrooms. He added that Bozeman High also offers programs in business, family and consumer science, and biomedical fields.

Seeing what’s available will help students as they decide which high school classes to sign up for, he added.

Elsie Arntzen, state superintendent of public instruction, came down from Helena just to see Bozeman’s career event.

“We need to make sure that, besides a diploma, students have the tools in hand,” Arntzen said, to build their careers, families and communities. “We call it building Montana, one student at a time.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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