Skilled Trades Expo Strengthens Connections between Employers and Schools

CANFIELD, Ohio — Tyson Ciccarelli is studying electrical work at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, and said he’s having a lot of fun doing it.

Ciccarelli, 16, said he’s the first in his family to consider a career in the trades. Most of his relatives went to college, but he said it wasn’t for him.

“I didn’t really want to go to college. So I was going to try something different and go to trade school,” he said. After graduating from MCCTC and his home school, Austintown Fitch High School, he looks to find an electrician job locally.

Ciccarelli was one of some 2,500 students who explored exhibits during Day 1 of the second annual Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo Wednesday. Despite the pandemic canceling the event last year, representatives of area trades say they’ve benefited from the momentum of the inaugural event in 2019.

After that first event, “the phone never stopped ringing,” said Ed Emerick, training director for the Youngstown Area Electrical Apprenticeship.

“It was a great thing,” he said. “For a lot of years, we tried to get into the school systems. And for whatever reason, I guess we’re the best kept secret, or we used to be. Since that event, we were inundated with phone calls.”

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Gallery images include the entrance area and main exhibit area, including Vince Irwin, statewide apprenticeship director for the Ohio Laborers Union; Michael Brobst, instructor with Ohio Laborers with Sebring McKinley High School students Emma Lynn and Emma Seevers; Struthers High School students Brandon Lee and Aiden St. Clair; Bill Messner, Roofers Local 71; and Brian Collier, Bricklayers and Tile Setters Local 8.

That year, Emerick had some 100 apprenticeship applicants, up from a typical 50, he said. Because of the pre-exposure at the event, he said more applicants were genuinely interested in pursuing the trade.

Typically, the apprenticeship program brings on 10 to 15 apprentices for the commercial industrial program, and another eight to 12 for residential. Thus, not all of 2019’s applicants made the cut. However, the ones who were accepted have so far worked out well and the numbers of qualified applicants has improved.

Electricians typically start at $12 to $13 hours plus benefits, with pay increases every six months, he said.

Apprentices from IBEW locals in Youngstown, Warren, Steubenville and Beaver, Pa., showed students the finer points of bending pipe, using hand tools and donning electrical worker gear.

Austin Ellis, 16, also studies electrical work at MCCTC. Ellis’ family is encouraging his pathway, he said, because electrical work is something automation can’t replace.

While touring the booths, Ellis says other trades were grabbing his interest.

“Construction has been interesting. Learning how to use a crane and stuff like that,” he said. “I think it’s definitely a good experience for the community to see what different trades they can go into.”

The biggest change to this year’s event is that it is split between two days, said Robert Eggleston, lead career counselor at the Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio. Students from Mahoning, Columbiana and Portage counties toured the fairgrounds Wednesday, and students from Trumbull County, as well as Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania, will have their chance during today’s event, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Eggleston said he expects about 2,500 students each day. The inaugural event drew more than 4,500. By splitting the expo into two days, it gives students more one-on-one time with the exhibitors for hands-on experiences, he said.

“Instead of having a large amount of students come at once, it’s a real nice flow,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the kids had ample time to actually get hands on with it.”

The exhibitors all appreciated the opportunity.

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Gallery images include shots from the electricians exhibit area, including United High School students Mary Boston and Allyson Lacey try lifting a steel beam while Lidel Hilson of Ironworkers Local 207 instructs them; Tyson Ciccarelli, MCCTC; Lisbon High School students Hanna Weems and Olivia May; Brian Crumbacher of IBEW Local 573 helping Robert Milliron, Salem, try on gear; Jen Dellinger of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396 demonstrating welding; Erin Pope of IBEW Local 573 showing Lisbon High School’s Weems and Brooklyn Cousins how to bend pipe; and Ed Emerick of the Youngstown Area Electrical Apprenticeship.

In 2019, the Expo opened a lot of students’ eyes to a roofing career, said Bill Messner, apprenticeship instructor for Roofers Local 71. The local received good feedback from the students and got a few apprenticeship applicants, “just not enough,” he said. He attributes part of that to how many students they met.

“It was too many people at one time,” Messner said. “It was like stop-go, stop-go. You couldn’t do what we’re doing today.”

Messner hopes this week’s event gives students more time to learn what the different trades do and offer their workers. Within the first year, roofing apprentices are on the job getting experience, he says. Roofers start at $17 hourly and earn good benefits, he said.

“It’s changed a lot since I was in their shoes,” he said. “Which I think is great.”

Emma Lynn, 15, Sebring McKinley High School, said she is interested in engineering and construction, but tried her hand at bricklaying and taking measurements using surveying equipment.

“It’s all really interesting. It’s also really hard,” she said. “I felt overwhelmed a little bit. It’s definitely a skill that takes time.”

Her classmate, Emma Seevers, 15, is also considering a career in the trades and said she started power tools over the last year. None of her relatives work in the skilled trades, so the interest is something she’s picked up on her own, but her parents support her decision, she said.

“They’ve always said I can do whatever I want,” she said. “They’re always going to be proud of what I choose to do in life.”

The expo reinforced that interest in the trades and gave her a chance to try new things.

“I didn’t know how to lay a brick before today,” she said, adding that she’d like more opportunities to get hands on with different trades. “It gives me the confidence to actually be able to want to do it.”

Olivia May and Hannah Weems from Lisbon High School also gave bricklaying a shot and said the experience was fun. May, 16, said she added bricklaying to her list of things she’s considering for after high school, though she plans to study cosmetology and nursing in college.

Weems also plans to attend college. The 15-year-old looks to study interior and exterior design, but said the Expo presented good options if college doesn’t work out.

“You’re not going to have to go back to college for it, and it’s not going to cost you thousands of dollars for you to still be ok to live,” Weems said.

Cost savings is a selling point for parents, Weems said, and has led to more parents and guidance counselors putting the trade school pathway on equal footing with college.

“There’s pros and cons with everything,” May added. “They give us an equal amount of pros and cons for both college and trades.”

The Expo is part of a long-term approach to address the employment gap in the trades, and it’s working, says Gary Hartman, association services director for The Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pa. The interaction the trades now enjoy with school districts in the five county area is bearing fruit.

“We don’t just stop here. We’re moving forward with programs within the school districts, the pre-apprentice programs that have now been established for some of the Mahoning County school districts,” he said. “We have 500 kids enrolled in pre-apprentice programs, and that’s tremendous. It’s a leg up for them, it’s a leg up for us.”

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Gallery images include Gary Hartman of The Builders Association, Robert Eggleston of the ESC of Eastern Ohio, Salem High School students Noah Marshall and Dylan Roberts practice drilling, and group shots of students.

In addition to exposing more students to the trades, the Expo gives teachers and guidance counselors a first-hand look at what local jobs are available, and it gives the trades a seat at the table, he said.

“I think that, at the end of the day, is probably one of the biggest things to come out of this from 2019,” he said.

After the 2019 Expo, the Bricklayers and Tile setters Local 8 received “a tremendous response” from students, as well as high school guidance counselors “who realized what a viable thing it is to go into the building trades,” said Field Representative Brian Collier. As a result, Collier says counselors are doing more to push the trades as much as college.

“They feel like we’re more accessible since they came in here and they saw us working with the young people hands on,” Collier says. “These counselors are actually a great pathway for students because they have direct access to us now.”

The Bricklayers saw a few new apprentices come through its doors after the first event, and Collier hopes to attract 20 to 30 more over the next few years. Wages start at more than $16 an hour, and over a four-year period, they can work their way up to $30 hourly. The benefits and retirement plans are “the major perk,” he said.

“In an age where maybe a lot of industries don’t have a good, defined retirement plan, we have a very good solvent retirement system,” he says. “I’m looking forward to retiring in about 11 years, and if all goes well I’m not going to have to worry.”

Collier and other trades reps echoed a key benefit to the trades career pathway: no student loan debt. In fact, many of the trades offer earn-while-you-learn opportunities.

Student debt is a chief concern for Aiden St. Clair, 16, Struthers High School. St. Clair aspires to be a professional boxer, but he’s eyeing the trades as a possible fallback plan.

“If I had to do a trade, I’d do something like carpentry or an electrician,” he says.

His classmate, Brandon Lee, 16, is also interested in a career in the trades, but isn’t sure which trade just yet. Lee wants to like what he does, and said events like the Expo give him an opportunity to narrow down his career options.

“That’s what I’m here for today,” he said. “Whatever I’m interested in today is probably going to be what I’m looking into after high school.”

The trades aren’t promoted as much as college by his guidance counselors or family members, St. Clair said. And while he is also considering college, he said the possibility of accruing a lot of student debt worries him.

“Student debt’s a real big problem in America,” he said. “That’s what scares me.”