High school students from across Northwest Indiana got a chance Tuesday to lay brick with trowels, drill holes in walls, make insulation, operate surveying equipment, haul loads with virtual cranes and honk horns on big trucks.
Fourteen different union trade groups taught about 1,000 kids from an estimated 26 high schools about careers in building and construction at Northwest Indiana Construction & Skilled Trades Day. Students received hands-on demonstrations of what the work is like and learned about apprenticeship programs that could lead to high-paying union jobs.
The Construction Advancement Foundation and Northwest Indiana Workforce Board staged the career fair Tuesday at the Industrial Building at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Crown Point to show high school students from Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Jasper counties how to get work in the trades. They got to take home applications for various apprenticeship programs in what may become an annual event.
"They wanted a way to bring awareness to the trades, and the skills required and the openings that are occurring in each of the trades," said Sandy Alvarez, a senior associate at the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board. "We have parents that brought their kids, that took them out of school so they could be here today. They haven't done anything like this in 10 years."
Students from Crown Point, Portage, Hammond and many other schools got information on career opportunities with the Teamsters, Carpenters and Millwrights, Sheet Metal Workers, Ironworkers, Plumbers, Electricians, Operating Engineers, Bricklayers, Roofers, Insulators, Pipefitters, Laborers, Technical Engineers and Painters and Glazers.
"To be able to get all these trades under one roof, that was no easy task," said Barb Grimsgard, of the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board. "There's a lot of activity at each booth. They're trying to engage the kids as much as possible."
Increasingly, schools are realizing not every child should be pushed into a four-year college, Grimsgard said.
"There are other options for them — good-paying, stable jobs with good benefits," she said. "Parents are slowly coming to the realization there are other options if their children don't want to go to a four-year college."
In Northwest Indiana, there are an estimated 20,290 construction jobs, making it one of the top employing industries in the area and about 13 percent above the national average in job concentration, according to EMSI Inc.
Kids learned Tuesday about what tradespeople do on job sites by using real tools, moving around sand in a crane simulation and climbing iron like Ironworkers.
"You can tell they're enjoying themselves," said Kevin Comerford, the Construction Advancement Foundation's director of professional development. "They're engaged. They're meeting with apprentices, who aren't that far removed from high school and who they can relate to because of the age. There's a lot of good questions being asked by the students."
The unions are concerned with the so-called "silver tsunami" — an aging membership that's expected to result in a wave of retirements in the coming years. They hope for new blood.
"I keep hearing the quality of applicants is not very good," Comerford said. "They'll get a handful of good ones and the rest are mediocre. They get a lot of people who get weeded out by a drug test. A lot of people are competing for these jobs – they're competitive. We try to get the best candidates we can. We're trying to educate high schools that these are viable careers that exist, that they pay very well. The average wage is over $60 an hour, when you include benefits."
The Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council President Dennis Hahney said a lot of work is out there in the Region.
"Drive by a steel mill, a refinery, a hospital, a school," he said. "Those are the industries we service. Turn on the light switch. The energy's produced from a turbine with steam from a pipe from a pipefitter. Everybody has to have a roof. Everybody takes it for granted but a lot of work goes into a roof."