CANFIELD, Ohio – Students with big ambitions in the trades and those with a fleeting interest all got a get-your-hands-dirty experience at the Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo at the Canfield Fairgrounds Sept. 20-21.
“There’s a lot of amazing jobs out there,” said Tyler Moats, a senior at United Local High School who is in the building trades II class. Moats has not made a decision about his future but knows he’s interested in welding, even if it is underground or underwater. “They make a lot of money and they get to work on semitrucks,” he said.
His father works in manufacturing, and his mother is in retail. Moats said they would like to see him use his skills for a different career.
At the Skilled Trades Expo, his teacher, Rebecca Zeisler, whom he calls Mama Z, entered him in a skills contest, where he got to show off what he has learned about measuring, Pythagorean theorem and constructing a birdhouse with hands-on skills. While going to the various booths, Moats said he bent pipe and worked on roofing.
Zeisler, the woodshop and building trades instructor at United, brings her junior and senior students to see and meet people who work in the building trades. In class, she talks about carpentry, masonry, electricity, plumbing and other skilled trades. She hopes they find areas that interest them and says the annual expo helps them to make connections that can lead to a job.
Zeisler, who has a degree in agricultural science and a family background in carpentry and wood shop, uses what her students see and experience at the expo as visual starting points for lessons they will learn the rest of the year.
“It helps open their eyes and their minds to everything that is out there. Because they would not have otherwise seen that,” Zeisler says, noting that students from United have multiple opportunities to attend the expo. “If college is not for them, this is definitely of benefit for them.”
About 2,500 students were expected to explore the Skilled Trades Expo during the two-day event. It was also open to the public the evening of Sept. 20.
“The purpose of this is to get students interested in the trades. So instead of reading about it in the book, watching it online, they are going to come experience it,” said Robert Eggleston, coordinator of career counseling at the Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio, which helps to organize and host the expo. “It’s hands-on experience. Come and talk to the people who do it every day. They’re going to get their hands dirty.”
Since the annual event began in 2019, representatives from the skilled trades have found more and better hands-on activities for students to learn what they can do in the trades. The event has grown and so has the number of young people entering the trades.
“We have an immediate need. And we have a long-term need,” said Gary Hartman, association services director of the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
The expo is a forward-thinking solution to address long-term needs for workers, Hartman said. “Now what we’re seeing over the past five years – because of the expo and because of our preapprentice programs that trickled out of it – is a much younger group of individuals applying for jobs in the trades.”
Instead of waiting until they are in their late 20s to apply, Hartman said he sees people as young as 19 interested in apprenticeship programs.
Across the nation, Hartman said there is an estimated shortage of about two million people in the skilled trades, and in the Mahoning Valley, a shortage of about 400 to 500. Additionally, he said the average age is 47 and many have 20 to 25 years of experience. And with the quality pension program that comes from many of the trade unions, many may be retiring in the next 10 years. Passing all that knowledge along to the next generation is key.
Many local schools have started pre apprenticeship programs to give students a taste of the trades and a chance to gain valuable skills. Hartman said about 550 area students are participating in preapprenticeships. Several of the programs at local career centers are full and have waiting lists.
“The numbers in the building trades programs are skyrocketing,” Eggleston added. Last year there were about 500 students who participated in a building trades program at their schools. After graduation, at least 90 are known to have declared for advanced building trades union or nonunion training programs. Additionally, he said educators have seen a sharp increase in those ages 18 to 22 enrolling in apprenticeship programs.
“So, it is working. It’s absolutely working,” Eggleston said.
Another bit of proof that the skilled trades expo is working: Counties and cities across the state are in the process of duplicating it, according to Hartman.
From picking up a trowel to operating an excavator, the idea was to make the expo as hands-on and interactive as possible.
“Everything here is interactive,” Eggleston said. “We have students hanging drywall; students laying block over there; some roofing.”
Eggleston said the ESC of Eastern Ohio has partnered with local high schools to launch 15 building trades classes and 22 students enrolled in those programs got to compete for prizes as they showcased what they have learned by building birdhouses, reading blueprints and performing both wall framing and roofing.
“It’s the first year for this competition and we’re excited about that,” Eggleston said.
“The school districts, the counselors, the administrators, the school boards themselves have realized there are other opportunities for our kids to make a great career,” Hartman said. “I always talk to kids about the difference between a job and a career. What’s a job? A job pays you – gives you immediate satisfaction. A career is something that is going to be long-term for you – give you that financial stability. And there are other things that come with it.”
Guidance counselors consider the skilled trades expo a marquee event, Eggleston said, marking it on their school calendar each year.
Darren Miller, a guidance counselor at Crestview Schools, brought 60 students this year. After the event, students come back to school excited about what they saw. It draws the interest of other students, he said. Making a livable wage without college loan debt is an attribute of going into the skilled trades, he points out when he talks to students about their futures. Some students just are not looking for more classes when they finish high school.
“It swings back to where do you want to get to? Let’s talk about where you want to be,” Miller said.
Many students find their paths after getting a chance to talk to those working in a field they did not know about.
“I want to go into the medical field. But it’s good to know this is a backup,” said Bella Roush, a Columbiana sophomore who enjoyed working with the tools, including at the roofing display.
Hartman said the trade unions have all improved their expo displays through the years and found more ways to get students engaged.
That suited students like Stephen Smith, a Lisbon sophomore who said his grades slipped when learning went online in 2020. He is now certain that he is a hands-on learner.
At the expo, Smith tried out a variety of machines and activities, including the Sheet Metal Local 33 display where he worked on a machine that breaks or bends metals.
Other exhibits by Local 33 included a display house with a variety of metal roofing and siding options attached to each side, several HVAC-related displays and an opportunity to use screwdrivers and pound together metal boxes.
In the same area, Shawn Osborn, a Local 33 member, was helping students try a virtual MIG welder, which he said is used in many industrial applications.
“It’s a very niche thing but it’s a very big part of what we do,” Osborn said.
Larry McQuillan, a retiring coordinator and instructor at the Youngstown Ohio Sheet Metal Training Center on McClurg Road, said people don’t often understand all the things people working with sheet metal can do.
“It’s like we’re the best-kept secret, but we don’t want to be,” said McQuillan, standing in front of a large sculpture of Optimus Prime, from the Transformers movie, built from sheet metal.
Sheet metal work jobs can include air, rail, transportation, HVAC and construction. McQuillan said he wants students to try things out and see if it is a good fit for them.
Jesse Clay, a finisher apprenticeship teacher with Cement Masons Local Union 526, Area 179, demonstrated and instructed students as they smoothed and made joint lines in wet concrete with several tools he had on hand. He explained how a stamp can be used to make concrete look like wood.
“Feel free; get dirty,” Clay said, as he encouraged some students who were watching others work.
Pictured at top: Tyler Moats, a senior at United Local High School, participated in the pre-apprenticeship skills competition. He attended the event with United’s skilled trades instructor, Rebecca Zeisler.