Brandon Kempenich
ON TRACK: Brandon Kempenich’s internship with DeZURIK has him on track to reach his goal of becoming a mechanical engineer.

Countdown to Careers

Career exploration initiatives help high school students land internships, apprenticeships and learn about close-to-home opportunities

By Bob McClintick | Photography by John Linn

As a boy, Brandon Kempenich had an insatiable appetite for all things mechanical. He didn’t just squeeze the trigger on his remote-controlled car to watch it zoom and veer and careen. He tore the car down. Ripped the engine out. Changed the gearing. He tinkered to learn, understand and enhance its performance.

And his NERF blasters, well, the off-the-shelf product just wouldn’t do. Kempenich would disassemble his toy guns, harvest the springs and stack them into a single blaster to make it shoot soft-tipped darts harder, farther.

Kempenich channeled his engineering enthusiasm into junior high and high school robotics, where he explored computer-aided design, 3-D printing and learned about plasma cutting and laser engraving. Today, the 2021 Sartell High School graduate is enrolled in a two-year program with the Center for Manufacturing and Applied Engineering at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. His goal is to become a mechanical engineer, and his current educational pathway, coupled with an internship at DeZURIK, an Initiative Foundation Community Builders Circle member, has him well on his way.

“I applied for the DeZURIK internship because I knew I was staying close to home for my schooling,” said Kempenich, who learned about the Sartell company’s global industrial valve manufacturing during a school tour. His high school industrial arts instructor, Joe Schulte, helped make the DeZURIK internship connection. “I thought, ‘Hey, if I had an internship possibility here and the schooling I want, I really don’t need to go anywhere.’”

Kempenich is just one of many young people across Central Minnesota who local businesspeople and educators hope will soon be moving from high schools to regional workplaces.

As parents, educators and workforce experts rethink the current trend of pointing high school graduates to university educations, local companies and nonprofits are creating innovative programs to showcase careers that don’t require such a steep commitment of time and financial resources.

Through career exploration programs like St. Cloud’s EPIC—Exploring Potential Interests and Careers—and Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection in Brainerd, both of which are supported by Initiative Foundation grants, high school students are learning about close-to-home opportunities, many of which do not require a four-year post-secondary education.

In fact, workforce experts frequently cite a basic formula—7-2-1—to illustrate the statewide demand for workers. Simply put, for every 10 jobs advertised, businesses on average need seven people with a high school diploma, technical college certificate or a two-year associate’s degree; two people with a four-year bachelor’s degree; and one person with a master’s level education.

“The numbers tell us that the majority of jobs in Central Minnesota don’t require a lengthy post-secondary education,” said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation. “If we can expose young adults to the opportunities to find fulfilling work, minimize student debt, and stay within the region, it will have a significant impact on the shortage of skilled workforce we’re currently experiencing—and can expect to experience for more than a decade.”

Careers in health care lead the way, accounting for nearly 50,000 Central Minnesota jobs with average annual wages of $42,500, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Della Ludwig, Central Minnesota workforce strategy consultant for DEED, said manufacturing follows as the region’s second largest employing industry, providing nearly 40,000 jobs with an average annual wage of more than $57,500, well above the region’s overall average of $48,500. Combined, health care and manufacturing account for nearly one-third of the region’s 283,000-plus jobs.

At the Initiative Foundation, supporting high school career exploration and skills development is an organizational priority. In the last decade, the Initiative Foundation and its Partner Funds have awarded numerous grants to support regional career exploration initiatives—from a renewable energy careers program in the Wadena school district to an automotive careers project in the Swanville school district. The grants have helped to elevate awareness, create connections and open up close-to-home career avenues for high schoolers.

The demand for skilled workers is real and ongoing, driven by myriad changes: a shortage of quality, affordable child care for working families; a continued decline in rural populations with increasingly diverse communities that demand employer adaptation; and an aging workforce. In fact, through 2030, when at least one of five residents in every Minnesota county will be older than 65, the working population in Central Minnesota is forecasted to shrink by 3 percent. The seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area is the only region in Minnesota that is expected to expand its working-age population over the next decade.

The combination creates a true supply-and-demand challenge: The state demographer has forecasted there will be 3.1 million jobs available in Minnesota by 2024. Unfortunately, even if employment rates are maintained at historic levels of 78 percent of adults working, just 2.7 million workers will be available/able to work in 2024. That leaves the state with 400,000 jobs to fill—and that figure may be even more lopsided as a result of the pandemic, higher quit rates among workers and the ongoing retirement of baby boomers, the largest population of workers in U.S. history.

Local workforce experts say retaining students and making workplaces more open, welcoming and accessible is a crucial step in shoring up the shortfall.

Gail Cruikshank, talent director at the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation and event facilitator for EPIC, said the St. Cloud-area career exploration program is aligned to workforce niches and provides students with a strong sense of what is possible in a particular career or field.

“Our goal is that when they go back to school, they are debriefing with somebody and asking key questions,” Cruikshank said. “‘Are my classes aligned? Can I start taking some post-secondary courses now? Is there some kind of experiential internship or job shadowing that I can do now, while I’m still in high school, that will help me advance in this field?’”

It’s a path that Kempenich followed, and it’s paying dividends. He’s been invited to stay on with DeZURIK for the duration of his technical college education. “It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “They take care of their employees. Even as an intern, I still get invited to the picnics, the company get-togethers and all that. And I get to do it in a professional environment and advance my skills and abilities.”


Introducing young people to career opportunities can be just a click away. Visit the following websites for more career exploration information:

There are a variety of free online tools available that can help with career assessment, including: