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The Connection Zone

2015 CEFGA CareerExpo and SkillsUSA State Championships Draw Record Attendance and Link Students and Industry Professionals

Editor’s note:  The following article by Allen Allnoch, feature writer for the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), was written following the March 26-27, 2015 event and was originally included in CEFGA’s latest electronic newsletter.  Reprinted with permission.

As Bryan Tapia walked toward the rear entrance of the Georgia International Convention Center, he tried to get his mind around what he had just experienced. Behind him was a dizzying array of earth-moving equipment, and he and two Coosa High classmates, Eric Vargas and Israel Domingo, had sat in the driver’s seat and operated each one.

“I’m speechless,” said a wide-eyed Tapia, an 11th-grader who was attending his first CEFGA CareerExpo and SkillsUSA State Championships. "I thought it would be something where you could look at a lot of things, but there are a lot of opportunities where you can actually work the equipment and really have a hands-on experience. It’s mind-blowing.”

With a record 7,307 attendees – including 5,179 students from 236 schools and 1,208 industry representatives from 326 organizations – and a floor space the size of six football fields, the March 26-27 event certainly fit Tapia’s description. It’s Georgia’s largest event of its kind, designed specifically for young adults to explore more than 30 career paths in construction, transportation, public safety, energy and more.

To that end, the CareerExpo was divided into 14 “Worlds,” each designed to be educational and, as Tapia discovered, fun and interactive as well. Students mingled with industry professionals from various companies, apprenticeship programs, and educational institutions, learning how academic disciplines such as math and science are used on the job, and what kinds of careers are available.

“I Want To See It All”

The event moved in 2008 from the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds to the GICC, located just west of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Ryan Byars, CEFGA Board Chair and a senior project manager for Holder Construction Company, noted the steady growth and impact since its humble beginnings at the former venue.

“The Gwinnett County Fairgrounds allowed us a lot of flexibility,” Byars said. “They had the dirt out there that we needed for some of the competitions, but moving [to the GICC] was a chance for us to bring all the energy together related to the different competitions, and really start to raise awareness about the construction industry for high school students.

“Seeing it grow into the major event that it is today has been a lot of fun,” Byars continued. “We feel like this event takes the foundation that the instructors have built for their students and broadens that horizon a little bit, to give them a little snapshot and some perspective about the working world and construction as a whole. I think the biggest joy for me is when we can get new people and companies to come out and see the event. As soon as they walk in and see the kids and the instructors and the level of professionalism associated with the career expo, they’re instantly drawn in.”

Kayla Lowe and Nyasia Glover, both freshmen from Macon’s Westside High, were two such newcomers. Kayla plans to switch from an engineering-oriented curriculum to one emphasizing construction next year. Her initial impression of the CareerExpo: “Where do I go first? There’s so much, and I want to see it all.”

Students weren’t the only ones impressed by the scope of the event. Will Etheredge, a new CEFGA board member and a regional director for JE Dunn Construction, was another first-time attender.

“I was very impressed with the size and the participation of so many different sectors of the industry,” Etheredge said. “The event clearly exposes students to a multitude of skilled trades in a way that is very exciting.”

Byars has long been involved in the event, but he continues to recognize the excitement and energy that surrounds it.

“When you get a group of young people together like this,” he said, “there is a sense of the unknown, a sense of discovery. For us who have been out in the workforce for a while, some things start to seem repetitive, but for these folks, it’s all brand new. It’s always fun to see the energy that the students bring.”

Indeed, the entire building buzzed with energy, with everything from blowtorches to scissor lifts to power saws adding to the excitement. Attendees began their journey with a safety briefing, then moved through the different Worlds on the show floor’s perimeter. Those who attended on day two also got to see the SkillsUSA State Championships on the “center stage” area of the floor.

A Competitive Cream of the Crop

Those SkillsUSA competitions amp the energy level even higher. The state’s most talented high school and technical college students were judged by professionals on project completion, accuracy, safety and other industry-based criteria. Winners will advance to the National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, from June 22-26.

Craig Barrs, Executive Vice President of Georgia Power, was the keynote speaker at the CEFGA VIP and SkillsUSA Champions’ Breakfast on March 27. He lauded the competitors as “the cream of the crop” and exhorted them to “make sure you’re motivated every day to be the best you can be.” To the educators who mentor them, he said, “You’re creating a better Georgia through the work you’re doing every day.”

Barrs, along with other speakers from the morning’s breakfast, then opened the competition with a ceremonial “board cutting.” Thus began a new flurry of activity, with more than 400 students participating in 26 competitions such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electrical and welding.

In the sheet metal competition, Chad Carhart, an estimator with A&B Sheet Metal in Forest Park, was serving as a judge for the 11th year in a row. He’s enjoyed seeing the event grow and foster young talent.

“I’ve always been the type who likes to work with my hands and see a finished project,” Carhart said. “It’s hard to find skilled sheet metal laborers anymore, especially at this young age, so hopefully we can instill that in some of the kids who come here to be part of this event. Seeing these young kids here is really encouraging. We actually hired one who came here about six or seven years ago. He worked with us three or four years and did really well.”

Turning Connections into Careers

Success stories like Carhart’s former employee are not uncommon. Ramiro Mojica is another student who parlayed Expo connections into a career.

Mojica first came to the event while he was a junior at West Hall High in Gainesville. His instructor, Mike Madson, was friends with Donnie Woodham, Vice President of Field Operations for McKenney’s, Inc. Mojica graduated in May 2013; less than a month later he began a paid apprenticeship with McKenney’s and ultimately had a hand in building the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton.

This year Mojica represented McKenney’s at the Expo and participated in a Champions Panel discussion during the SkillsUSA breakfast. He spent both days helping students with a word game at the World of Heating & Air Conditioning while extolling the virtues of a construction career. 

“Kids think, ‘Oh, it’s just construction, that’s not for me,’” said Mojica. “But I was in the same place and I wish there had been someone like me when I came through, so I could have gotten a feel for it sooner.”

Woodham praised Mojica, now a second-year apprentice. “He’s not a helper or gopher-type worker anymore,” he said. “We hand him the prints and hook him up with a helper and he can do the job now. Ramiro has been a great success story.”

Students like Mojica, Woodham added, illustrate the potential of a construction-oriented career, even for those who may not be interested in attending college.

“Kids may hear about what companies do, but it’s hard to get them out to construction sites,” Woodham said. “They can come through here and see every phase and every trade that construction has to offer. We want to let them know there are good, well-paying careers outside of college.”

Tyler English, a senior at Jones County High School, was attending his third CEFGA CareerExpo. He aspires to be an electrician and has been diligent about fostering those relationships that may one day benefit him.

“A lot of people [at the CareerExpo] have told me about apprenticeship programs that I didn’t know about before,” English said. “It’s so helpful to hear about different opportunities like that.”

As English is learning, and Mojica and Woodham have demonstrated, students and industry professionals alike benefit from the networking opportunities afforded by CEFGA’s annual gathering at the GICC. It doesn’t produce instant results, but for those willing to establish and nurture relationships, it’s an organic process that can pay off in the long run.

“It’s a challenge because we work in an industry where you literally see concrete results every day, whereas this is a process where you don’t always see results right away,” Byars said. “But the company I work for, Holder, was founded on the idea that we were going to grow organically and develop for the long haul. We were always going to do the type of job that gets us invited back the next time, and that’s what we want to do in our involvement with CEFGA, and that’s what a lot of the other participants are doing, too, helping to focus on the long term.

“We talk about the five-year outlook, and I truly believe this is one of the greatest times to come out in the technical industry, from trucking to manufacturing to the actual bricks and sticks on site. It all ties in with the supply chain in an industry that is changing rapidly, and there is a huge need for skilled labor to be part of that.”

Etheredge, too, is encouraged by the potential of today’s student population. “Finding skilled, quality, young workers to enter the U.S. workforce is one of the greatest challenges we face,” he said. “I cannot think of a better way to support that mission than to promote the industry through events like this, in concert with ample opportunities through the education system for students to be exposed to the trades.

“The education and skills they learn through that process will most definitely aid them in their future pursuits and improve their lives through having career options. Our country depends on the strength of the people entering our construction, utility, defense, public and service sectors. This is an investment in everyone’s future.”

AT A GLANCE: 2015 CEFGA CareerExpo and SkillsUSA State Championships

  • 7,307 Total Attendees
  • 5,179 Students
  • 920 Influencers (Teachers, Parents, Counselors and School Administrators)
  • 1,208 Industry Volunteers, Exhibitors and Other Guests
  • 236 Schools
  • 326 Companies

You can see some of the action from the event in the following five-minute video produced by CEFGA, and view all of the official event photos on Facebook.

You can read about last year’s 2014 event in Scott Shelar’s article here on Construction Citizen.

Next year’s event will be held on March 17-18, 2016.