Tradespeople, educators, workforce specialists, and students from dozens of schools and career centers across the Region congregated at the Lake County Fairgrounds on Tuesday for the sixth annual Construction & Skilled Trades Expo.
A collaboration between Center of Workforce Innovations, Northwest Indiana Workforce Board, Construction Advancement Foundation, We Build NWI, and Indiana Plan, the expo offers students a chance to explore careers in 16 different trades such as pipefitting, ironworking, and insulating with hands-on demonstrations and lessons led by union apprentices. The Region is under constant construction and maintenance, which means an abundance of job opportunities right out of high school
“It’s a well-known fact that college isn’t for everybody and a lot of young people who don’t want to go fall into debt,” said Ami Reese, director of marketing & communications for Center of Workforce Innovations. “The construction industry and skilled trades are pathways to success that don’t include a degree or that debt. They can get into their career and into their lives a lot faster while also helping rebuild our infrastructure and having a hand in rebuilding Northwest Indiana.”
Across 16 different stations, union apprentices and instructors helped students try their hands at welding, metal working, bricklaying, and more to create their own souvenirs. Other unions brought along VR headsets and cockpits to allow students a chance to operate different machinery. The ironworkers, whose work largely involves erecting new structures and buildings, created a set to give students a taste of what it is like to work on a high-rise safely.
“We’ve been coming to this since it started,” said David Alaniz, instructor for Ironworkers Local 395. “Right now, I have three apprentices I’m instructing who signed up here at this event last year. We go to a lot of events, but we really look forward to this one because it’s a captive audience with these students being bused in.”
Students came from schools across every community in Northwest Indiana, from Gary West Side Leadership Academy to La Porte High School. For many of them, the expo was their first time hearing about some of these potential career paths.
“I’d only heard of things like plumbers and electricians,” said Isaiah Dunn, a senior at West Side. “This is super useful. Where I’m from, there are a lot of people that don’t know what’s out there. There’s college or the military, that’s it. But I’ve had a lot of fun with this, I’ve learned all the benefits like having your own insurance and stuff like that.”
There is a shortage of skilled professionals and tradespeople in the Region, but an abundance of projects that need them to be completed. The jobs are high-paying - with an average wage (including benefits and retirement) of $70 an hour - and generally simple requirements such as a driver’s license, reliable transportation, good physical shape, and being drug free.
“There’s so much work coming to Northwest Indiana and not enough people to fill these jobs,” said Kevin Comerford, director of professional development at Construction Advancement Foundation. “There’s the Double Track and the West Lake Corridor rail projects bringing a bunch of new construction. There’s the industrial sector like BP, U.S. Steel, and NIPSCO needing people to maintain their facilities. We’re trying to expose kids to these careers and match them with the opportunities available in the construction trades.”
Reese noted how important it is to have such willing partners in the local unions and schools.
“We’re joining forces to do something very big,” Reese said. “This is the sixth annual expo, and it seems to grow every year both in attendance and in its importance to the community.”