Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo

‘Endless’ Jobs Touted at Inaugural Skilled Trades Expo

CANFIELD, Ohio – At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, a steady stream of school buses began pulling into the Canfield Fairgrounds to drop off the more than 4,000 high school students attending the first Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo.

The buses didn’t stop loading and unloading until later that afternoon.

“It’s like a shotgun golf start,” Gary Hartman told about a dozen volunteers just as the buses began arriving.

The students, representing high schools from Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana Counties in Ohio, and Mercer and Lawrence Counties in Pennsylvania, kept all the members of the skilled trades, and the 175 volunteers on hand to help guide them through the expo, busy throughout the morning.

“The idea behind it is to create an interactive career expo where the kids can come out and explore the skilled trades,” said Hartman, who is the association services director with the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

Planning for the expo began a year ago through a partnership between The Builders, The Western Reserve Building Trades and the Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Educational Service Centers.

“All the school districts realized the importance of exploring the skilled trades with the mounting college debt,” said Hartman.

Though the event was a year in the making, nothing that morning went according to plan.

Shortly before the students arrived, Fair Manager Bev Fisher broke the news that the north end of the fairgrounds had lost power.

“Usually it means a squirrel got in the substation on Fairground Boulevard,” she explained.

Moments later, students from South Range appeared from behind the welcome center after being dropped off at the wrong gate.

“We’re getting that blocked off,” assured Rob Eggleston of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center.

The event would also have to proceed without the scheduled keynote address from Jessi Combs, a professional racecar driver and metal fabricator, who was killed attempting to break a land-speed record August 27.

Despite the setbacks, members of the skilled trades were determined to make the day a success, in part because of the great need for new workers.

“We know nationally by 2020 we’re going to be about 2 million short across the nation in the skilled trades,” said Hartman.

“Locally there’s a ton of opportunity. We have lots of projects coming up.”

Carlton Ingram, Business Representative for the Operating Engineers Local 66, agreed.

“We’re doing pretty well,” thanks in part to the growth of the oil and gas industry, he said.

In the past four years, the apprenticeship program of the Operating Engineers has increased to more than 400 students, up from about 150.

“The message is getting out. Kids see this as an option,” Ingram said.

Which is exactly what the trades hope to accomplish with events like the expo.

“Obviously there’s a buy-in from management as you see all the displays. Because we all realize we’re building for the future,” Ingram said.

Throughout the fairgrounds, representatives of 15 trades set up interactive, educational displays to spark interest in the students in attendance.

Students packed the grandstand during lunch. The inaugural Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo drew some 4,200 middle school and high-school students.

At the mason and bricklaying display, students could pick up a trowel and try their hand at laying brick. Many underestimated the amount of skill it took.

“The bricklayers make this job look easy. It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Rocky DiGennaro, business manager for the Laborers.

Despite what many young people may think, jobs in the area are plentiful, DiGennaro noted.

“My local alone has 420 members and every single guy is working. That’s great opportunity.”

One of the main drivers of that opportunity is the construction of Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker plant near Monaca, Pennsylvania, though the impact could be bigger, DiGennaro observed.

“There’s shortages everyday. There’s 8,000 people working at the Monaca plant alone.”

Across from the bricklayer display, Larry Elder, a carpenter instructor for the Ohio Carpenters, says he gets calls from contractors everyday who need carpenters, “really bad.”

“Everybody thinks they have to go to the coast to find great work. Well there are amazing jobs all around here that you can work on,” he said.

Key to making the trades more appealing to young people, Elder said, is shaking the stigma, “that if you’re in construction or the trades that it’s a low-brow job.”

“We’re very intelligent people and we do sophisticated work,” Elder said.

One example of how the trades have become more sophisticated could be found at the Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC display, where Chase Packard, a 20-year-old technician, showed students what fixing automobiles is like in 2019.

From his laptop, Packard turned the lights on and off and even fired up the engine on the new 2020 Silverado HD sitting behind him.

“Most of the repairs on vehicles anymore, they’re not mechanical repairs,” he explained. “Most of the repairs we’re doing are reprogramming.”

Packard worked at a friend’s body shop before starting work as a lube technician at Sweeney.

The dealership enrolled him in a two-year automotive technology course at Stark State University in Canton, where he shadowed a GM Master Technician.

“I’m continuing my education, getting more certifications. Always furthering my career. Every day is something different,” he said.

The excitement that comes with working in the skilled trades is a big selling point for students at Choffin Career and Technical Center in Youngstown, said welding instructor Patrick Prokop.

“The kids like to come to class because it’s fun, and you learn how to do things with your hands,” he said.

The welding course at Choffin has around 20 students at any given time, Prokop reported, though they “could always use more.”

“Some kids want to stay local. There are local jobs and they’re endless,” he said. “They’re never, ever not looking for people.”

After a morning spent playing with welding simulators and sitting inside street pavers, the students were ushered into the grandstand for a lunch provided by Panera Bread.

“I know the people who helped make the food came in around 4 a.m. They also prepped the day before,” said Mikaline Thoma, catering operations manager.

Four Panera locations – Boardman, Canfield, Southwoods and Austintown – pulled resources to make sure the students didn’t have to weigh their career options on an empty stomach.

For Hunter Hays, a sophomore at Crestview High School, the income offered by the skilled trades made the decision easy.

“People make millions off of this stuff. Make all kinds of money,” he said.

With one successful expo now under their toolbelt, Hartman says the trades will be looking to take their message to even more students next year.

“We plan on making this an annual thing and expanding it as needed and hopefully getting a lot more people on board.”

Pictured above: Dan Klingman, Lincoln Electric, guides Dominic Andy from Springfield Middle School, who tries his hand at a virtual reality welding simulator.

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