When Rosey Grab decided to make a mid-life career-changing decision to become an operating engineer, the last place she envisioned herself would be helping to build one of Minnesota’s newest wind farms.
Grab is among the thousands of union construction workers throughout Minnesota and the Upper Midwest who are building Minnesota’s next generation of energy infrastructure – wind farms, solar farms, utility-scale battery storage and the transmission lines that carry that electricity to Minnesota’s homes, schools, hospitals and businesses.
After many years of working low-paying jobs, sometimes three or four jobs to make ends meet, Grab, a resident of Birchwood, Wisconsin, decided to make a change – entering the six-year apprenticeship program with the Twin Cities-based Local 49, the International Union of Operating Engineers. Grab anticipates completing her apprenticeship in 2022, when she will become a journeyman.
For her first job, Grab was assigned to build the Blazing Star 1 Wind Farm, located near Hendricks, along the Minnesota-South Dakota border. The Blazing Star 1 wind farm, built by Mortenson Construction for Xcel Energy, is a 200-megawatt wind project that will provide enough renewable energy to power more than 100,000 homes.
Located in the wind-rich Buffalo Ridge area, the project will connect to the CapX2020 Brookings County-Hampton 345 kilovolt line that will deliver electricity to customers throughout the South Dakota-southwest Minnesota region.
“It was amazing,” said Grab, who worked on the backfill crew. “I had seen wind farms while driving from the highway, but when you’re right there, you don’t realize how big those turbine blades are, or how much energy will be created from these wind farms.”
Working on that project cemented Grab’s desire to make construction a career. In addition to working on a project that will have an impact on the future of Minnesota’s energy infrastructure, Grab found her confidence growing, knowing that what she was doing felt purposeful.
“This new career in construction changed my life,” she said, “I come from a family of union construction workers. I’m working on projects I never thought I could be a part of. I’m making a difference and building my community, while supporting my family.”
While working at Blazing Star 1, Grab was part of a crew that backfilled the bases of turbines so that future construction crews could erect the turbines from the columns inserted in the ground. She had the opportunity to learn how to operate a sheepsfoot roller, a roller with many rectangular-shaped lugs, or “feet,” which are used to compact soil and silty clay in construction work.
“The fact that we have solar farms and wind farms is an amazing advancement of technology that I feel blessed to get to experience the process,” Grab said. “It’s amazing to see the magnitude and power of these machines, especially when you are right there on the ground. The opportunity to work on a wind farm was an experience I will forever cherish.”
Grab’s work on a wind farm and her local union’s participation represent a clear example of how everyone wins when local union workers are hired to build Minnesota’s energy infrastructure. The Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 15 building and construction unions and more than 70,000 union construction workers, wants Minnesotans to understand the critical link between good-paying union jobs and the energy they use to power their homes and businesses.
Apprenticeships, such as the apprenticeship program offered by Local 49, provides on-the-job training for people such as Grab and ensures that the state’s energy infrastructure is built to the highest levels of quality while maintaining the highest levels of safety for the workers who build it.
“We are dependent on the energy produced by wind turbines, solar energy, and pipelines for our everyday lives,” Grab said. “Having additional and alternative energy options, are, in my opinion, going to be huge in helping reduce the negative impact on our environment. Plus, these new energy projects are creating long-term career opportunities for trades workers across the state.”
Union Comradery and the Importance of Mentorship
Grab has six generations of construction trades workers in her family. As she pursued a career in construction it was a priority for her to join a union because she wanted a career with benefits and mentors to provide additional education opportunities and advice.
“The support I have received (from Local 49) is incredible and the comradery makes me feel empowered to chase my dreams,” Grab said. “As a woman, I’ve had many positive experiences and as long as you come prepared to work hard and stay focused, I think the inclusive environment is a welcoming place for a diverse group of people and their interests.”
Grab’s dedication to her career, work ethic and positive attitude are also shared by her 22-year-old daughter, Annesa, who is also training to become an operating engineer.
“This career has shown me that I can achieve anything I put my mind to,” Grab said. “With the support of my family, friends, faith and union, I take on challenges and embrace new opportunities.”
On the worksite, Grab shares the knowledge she has gained from her mentors with others.
“You can learn as much or as little as you want in life,” Grab said. “I choose to learn all I can from my mentors because someday, I want to be able to take all that good knowledge and apply it to whatever piece of equipment I’m operating in the most efficient, safest way.”
While Grabs’ work is physically reshaping Minnesota’s energy landscape, her work as an operating engineer has also given her the ability to broaden her own horizons.
“For 20 years, I worked low paying jobs. At one time, I pieced together five part-time jobs to make ends meet,” Grab said. “We got by to provide for our kids, but my husband and I made sacrifices — working jobs that often didn’t have any benefits, such as healthcare or a retirement plan.”
While her children were growing up, she worked in retail, customer service, manufacturing, as a bartender, and as a teachers’ aid among other roles.
“I’ve always believed in being true to your word and respectfully representing myself, my family, workplace, community and faith,” Grab said. “I have taken on each role in my life with the goal to be the best I can be — but the opportunities and benefits provided in the construction industry have given me peace of mind that I will retire and until then, I can spend lots of time with my children.”