Georgia’s booming CareerExpo draws young people to the trades

The construction industry faces a stark shortage of workers, but programs and people across the country are working at the local level to solve the problem. This series highlights the grassroots efforts helping to recruit the next generation of construction pros. Read previous entries here.

Do you know of a group that is helping to attract workers to the construction industry? Let us know.

Samantha Barnett, a student at Hardaway High School in Columbus, Georgia, was eager to learn the trades, even before she was old enough.

“I snuck into my school’s construction program my freshman year, which you’re not supposed to do,” Barnett told Construction Dive. “And I’ve loved construction work ever since.”

Now 18, Barnett will attend Columbus State University in the fall, seeking a degree in business and entrepreneurship. Her passion for carpentry has led her to take on a number of projects, such as wood carvings, decorations, photo booths and sets for school plays.

Earlier this month, Barnett competed in cabinetmaking competition at the CareerExpo event in Atlanta, run by Construction Ready, a nonprofit organization that helps train people for entry-level construction jobs. 

This year, over 7,000 students of all ages attended the expo, the largest youth workforce development event for construction in the state. 

Industry professionals from over 300 Georgia companies participated to talk about their organization’s work and career paths in the trades, while dozens of colleges and universities advertised careers in architecture, construction, government administration, public safety, transportation and more.

The expo’s competitions, like the one in which Barnett competed, were run by SkillsUSA, a career and technical student organization that enrolls members from middle, high school and trade colleges. SkillsUSA hosts contests for multiple trades, such as carpentry, welding, plumbing and masonry. At CareerExpo, visitors could see those contests on display at the Georgia World Congress Center March 9 and 10.

Barnett competed for about three and a half hours on the second day of the event against 20 other students to build the best cabinet. Barnett won her contest. As a result, she earned a box of prizes and the chance to compete at SkillsUSA’s National Championship in June.

Showing off the trades

The partnership between Construction Ready and SkillsUSA began two decades ago, Scott Shelar, Construction Ready’s president and CEO, told Construction Dive.

Back then, the contests like those at the CareerExpo were hosted in a Home Depot parking lot — the only place they could book with enough space, a far cry from the bustling conference center this month.

Since the pandemic, there hasn’t been an in-person CareerExpo, and Shelar said he was concerned people may not remember the event, nor turn out in numbers like in the past. Nonetheless, he said, the 9,300 who attended set a record for the event.

Shelar said this year’s expo included other fun learning experiences, like a CAT excavator simulator and a demonstration on running a basic electrical circuit.

From the expo floor to the jobsite

Shelar said several of the students who compete quickly find employment; this year 469 competitors entered 24 different contests. Barnett interviewed with a local cabinetmaker last week. Nonetheless, the expo is just one major step Construction Ready uses to raise awareness of the career path the trades offer.

“Remember that there’s no one thing that will convince a young person that ‘Oh this is what I need to do,’” Shelar told Construction Dive. 

As a result, he advised local contractors to get in touch with local career technical instructors, likening contractors to a college football coach.

“The best college football coaches in the country build relationships with high school football coaches. When they have a good relationship, the high school coach will call and say, ‘Hey we got a good student here,’” Shelar said. “Same goes for CTE. The only way that’s going to happen is if they know you’re out there and you build a relationship with those teachers.”

After spending four years studying at Hardaway, Barnett is now dual-enrolled; she spends her afternoons at Columbus Technical College. At the same time, her teacher Paul Grantham says she’s been more of a helper than a student, taking part in constructing any projects he has to take on for the school.

Barnett hopes her business degree will enable her to own and operate a custom furniture and woodworking business. She speaks with an eagerness and passion for her work, but knows construction and other blue collar trades are not a path that’s obvious to everyone.

“I’ve known a lot of people in this school who wanted to be in this construction program or a program like it and had never even heard about it,” she said.

Of CareerExpo, she said “it just opens doors for people,” and suggested contractors find similar events to open a booth and find passionate young people like her.

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