I'm not saying I am looking for a new job, but a visit to a virtual reality learning lab recently has me thinking I might be ok at welding. Maybe even good at it.

Ok, that may be a stretch and I am not quite ready to give up on informing readers about things that matter, so what can I do. I can't just toss away my new found gift. I'll start by telling you about how I found my hidden skill.

I got a phone call Tuesday, Nov. 2, about an amazing opportunity coming to Wadena the very next morning. It was Evelyn Fowler, team leader of the Rural Minnesota CEP in Wadena. She shared that Wednesday morning a semi truck and trailer would be coming to their parking lot loaded with big ideas. Literally the semi trailer is filled with virtual reality equipment and is named Big Ideas. It's a non-profit that travels from town to town teaching people about trade skills that they may have no opportunity to take part in otherwise.

So of course I was curious about it. I showed up the next day and was sent straight to the trailer to go to work. At first I thought I would just watch others learn how to drive an excavator or paint industrial parts. When I saw someone using a virtual reality MIG welder, I was intrigued.

The training device has you put on what looks like an actual welding face shield and hold what looks and feels like an actual welding gun. The technology is even wired to a device that looks exactly like a real welder. This was as close as I could get to using a real welder without actually burning a hole through my pants or wasting hundreds of dollars of in high priced equipment.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

So there I was shield adjusted, gun in hand, finger on the trigger and my trainer Joe Schotzko giving me directions on how to start my first weld.

He explained exactly how far to hold the tip of the welder from my joint. The virtual screen I was watching gave me indicators too, lighting up green when I was positioned just right to begin my weld. Then with a pull of the trigger I was welding. The noise, bright light and smoke emitting from my weld showed I was actually doing it.

Arrows indicated how quickly to move along the joint to make a smooth weld and red lines let you know if you were moving off the target. At the end of my 3-4 inch weld, I got to see my weld closely. Not great looking, but it was a weld that would hold up, at least in the virtual world. I scored in the low 90s. Not bad I thought.

I thought that was fun, but I'll move on. Joe thought otherwise. My instructor had me start a new weld and this time I was more consistent yet my read out at the end showed precisely where I was going wrong. Where I went too slow or too fast, when my hand went slightly off track. The critique was very detailed. I was impressed.

Now a new group of students came in behind me and I was ready to move on, but Schotzko wasn't done with me yet. He had me weld once again, except this time I was to demonstrate a weld for others. No pressure right? This time I knew right where to start. I knew where to hold my hands. I knew how to operate this thing without explanation. When I finished my weld, it was a thing of beauty. I scored a 99. I didn't ask, but I am going to assume that was out of 100. Am I that good? Should I deny the world of my natural ability?

Now I am not going to say that you can hand me a real welder and I will now weld a perfect roll of quarters or create a weld that you could bet your car axle on. That I am sure takes much time behind an actual welder. But this virtual reality device did is show me the basics of what welding feels like. It can build your confidence enough to make the user say, "Maybe I could really do this?"

That's exactly the hope of the Big Ideas trailer and those who bring it to their locations all over Minnesota. It offers a free opportunity to try out the trades without the fear of breaking something or the high cost of using actual materials.

Andrew Kish, mobile learning lab coordinator for Big Ideas Inc., shares how the skilled trades industry needs more young people and that virtual reality may be just the right tool to get them on their way down that path.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Andrew Kish, mobile learning lab coordinator for Big Ideas Inc., shares how the skilled trades industry needs more young people and that virtual reality may be just the right tool to get them on their way down that path. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

"It kind of takes the fear away," Andrew Kish, mobile learning lab coordinator for Big Ideas, said. He explained how the paint simulator shows exactly how much paint you used and how much you wasted. It even translates that to a dollar amount. That way when you go to the real deal chances are you will understand how to avoid waste.

Kish said the Big Ideas trailer is close to visiting 100 sites. It all began in March 2021 in New Ulm, Minn. They are working on adding more simulators and bringing on a second trailer soon.

He was inside the Career Force center watching students work with virtual reality goggles dong painting and woodworking. Watching a room full of people with VR goggles painting and lifting objects was quite hysterical.

A conference room full of students try their hand at different trades using virtual reality goggles and wands during a visit from Big Ideas Wednesday, Nov. 3 in Wadena.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
A conference room full of students try their hand at different trades using virtual reality goggles and wands during a visit from Big Ideas Wednesday, Nov. 3 in Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

"It's always easier to try something and say you don't like it then to never try it," Kish said.

Kish comes from a welding background and has traveled 49 states and to Europe thanks to his jobs. He loves his work. The lack of skilled workers like him drove him to do something to change that. He was 27 when he was in need of taking on more employees for his business. He could not find anyone under age 30 to apply for a job.

"That was the hardest thing to realize is, where are we going to from here," Kish said. He shared that the industry desperately needs young people to enter skilled trades. Skilled trades may not be for everyone, but neither is a four-year degree.

"Trades kind of make the world go round," Kish said. "Skilled trades are always going to be there."

What can it hurt to at least try out the trades. I can tell you the simulators take away risk of injury. Even the best welders still get burned from time to time. But not here. And where else could you hop in an excavator and expect to just take off without any repercussion for all the stuff you run over. Nowhere but here.

This mobile classroom offers up 26 virtual careers. Dozens of Rural CEP members as well as students from the surrounding communities came to give it a try. Most were laughing through the experiences. The Big Ideas website even lists sewing as one of their classroom learning opportunities. Their goal is to have people walk away from this saying "I did that!" That's how I felt.

Fowler said she was thrilled to have the Big Ideas trailer come as it was one more tool they could use to try to get people into a career. The Detroit Lakes office got the trailer to come and they then brought it to all their Rural CEP locations.

"Just trying to spark interest in getting a job and how we might be able to help with that," Fowler said of the reason for bringing it to Wadena. Unsurprisingly, the career center has far more jobs available than people seeking them.

"If they are looking to change a career or get a different job or need help with job search or resume, those are free services that we can help them with," Fowler said of the Rural CEP office services.

Following the experience Rural CEP staff had us take a survey. I have to say this was a five-star experience for me.

Getting this mobile classroom and staff to your location is not free. Fowler mentioned schools can seek a Perkins grant to pay to have this mobile trailer come to their location to get more students trying these careers out. No harm in giving it a try.