Wearing safety glasses and a yellow hard hat, Tyler Beckstein looked comfortable at the controls of a backhoe, methodically chomping and dumping scoops of dirt.
"It was sort of like a video game," Tyler said after hopping down from the cab.
Like many students his age, the 17-year-old Hutch Tech student hasn't settled on a career choice, but he said he would consider construction-related work. He doesn't have anything specific in mind, "just something I can get the hang of."
Tyler was one of about 1,200 high school students who will visit the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17's training center in Lake View for the fourth annual Western New York Construction Career Days. The two-day event, hosted by the Buffalo Building & Construction Trades Council with the support of contractors, wraps up today.
Organizers use the event to expose high school students from all over the region to a variety of trades, hoping to spark their interest in careers they might not have considered. Around the country, the construction industry is trying to replenish its ranks as older workers retire.
"This is a really worthwhile field trip," said Gary Bernardo, field representative for the New York State Laborers/Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. He also heads the New York State Construction Career Days nonprofit organization.
Moving from one area to another, students watched demonstrations and then tried their hands at several tasks, like steering equipment, welding and setting tile. Active and retired union members and contractors supervised their work.
A popular stop: a 35-ton crane, where students attempted to lift three tires tied together and center them on a wooden pole. On an actual work site, the crane operator might deposit a bucket of concrete or a steel beam in such precise fashion.
"It's pretty cool you have the opportunity," said Zach Vigue, a 15-year-old Niagara-Wheatfield student.
Zach noted that he grew up looking at equipment like the crane in action from afar. "Now you finally have a chance to use them," he said.
Jack DiMaria of Hamburg, a retired member of the Operating Engineers, sat beside Zach, teaching him the basics. Back on the ground, DiMaria talked to students about the 40 years he spent working year round and the good retirement benefits he was now enjoying.
"This is where you want to be," he said. "One thing about a crane, you work all the time and you're warm."
Organizers of the event say they are not trying to discourage kids from going to college. In fact, Alfred State College and Erie Community College were there, to highlight fields related to construction, including architecture and civil engineering.
Union leaders say they want to ensure students graduating from high school -- as well as their teachers and guidance counselors -- consider careers in the unionized construction trades as a viable option.
"We're getting a message through to them, this isn't a second choice, it's another choice," said John Magney of Carpenters Local 289, an organizer of the event.
Students cheered on their classmates as they stepped up to take turns at the controls of equipment. Ashley Beutler, a 17-year-old McKinley High Student, drove a small loader down a dirt path. She smoothly spun the machine around and returned it to its starting point.
"It was fun," Ashley said. "It was easy once they explain it to you."
For the trades and the construction industry in general, the task is to convert the students' enthusiasm into a career path.
Tony Bertini, a fourth-year apprentice with the carpenters union, said an event like career days can get the ideas flowing. "It gives them an opportunity to see what's out there if they don't want to go to college right away," he said.