CEFGA’s 15th CareerExpo and SkillsUSA State Championships Was Its Biggest Ever. Now the Event Eyes a 2020 Move to the Georgia World Congress Center.
By Allen Allnoch, CEFGA Writer and Photographer
From humble beginnings – debuting in the parking lot of a suburban Atlanta Home Depot – to outgrowing the second-largest convention center in Georgia, the CEFGA CareerExpo and SkillsUSA State Championships has enjoyed a remarkable run of growth and success over the past 15 years.
The 2019 edition, held March 21-22 at College Park’s Georgia International Convention Center, drew a record 8,615 total attendees, an increase of 4.5 percent over the previous year and almost 18 percent since 2015. It was the CareerExpo and SkillsUSA gathering’s final year at the GICC, where it has been held since 2009; next year it moves to the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta.
“I am so pleased with the turnout,” said CEFGA President and CEO Scott Shelar. “But I’m also pleased with the quality level of the event. I heard the phrase ‘well-oiled machine’ several times. Speaking on behalf of our team and the more than 1,000 volunteers who work so hard on this event, this is the best possible compliment. As I think back on the last 15 years and look ahead to our move to the Georgia World Congress Center in 2020, I am most proud of our reputation for hosting a quality event for employers and a quality event for our students. We look forward to building on this reputation in the years ahead at the GWCC.”
Tina Robison, CEFGA Vice President for Operations and Administration, echoed Shelar’s sentiments. “Our industry partners stepped up in a big way, to include more involvement and volunteer time, and helping get the students more information about careers in construction,” said Robison, who is deeply involved in planning and coordinating the CareerExpo each year. “We welcomed more new companies this year, and I expect that in the years ahead, we will grow exponentially. This makes me happy for so many reasons. One is that I have the pleasure of being an important part of planning this event; and two, I get so much joy seeing the faces of the students as they walk the floor.”
CEFGA’s decision to move to the larger GWCC – made more than a year ago – was prescient, considering the packed aisles and hallways at the GICC. Mirroring the state of Georgia’s economy in general, and the construction industry in particular, a palpable sense of energy infused the convention floor as thousands of students visited 17 industry “Worlds” and observed more than 400 competitors in the SkillsUSA contests (see related story and video).
The various Worlds represent industry disciplines including safety, highway construction, electrical contracting, energy, drywall, tile, roofing and more. Some 5,914 middle school, high school and technical college students had the opportunity to network with company and industry representatives, learn more about careers and have fun with interactive displays.
A Career Fair on Steroids
Cherri Watson, a veteran of more than 30 years with Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Georgia, has watched the event grow from day one and move from venue to venue (it also was held at Gwinnett Tech and the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in its early days). She said it’s needed today more than ever.
“I’m glad it’s become what it has,” Watson said. “We need these kids pumped up about construction. It’s a career fair on steroids. How else can you say it? You can never describe it to somebody who’s never seen it before. They always leave here and say it’s been such a great experience.”
Indeed, as Georgia’s economy continues to thrive and bring about new construction projects and job openings, an aging workforce is making it hard to keep up. It’s critical, then, that more young people embrace careers in construction, and the Expo is one important means of exposing them to the industry.
Dan Smith, Chief Financial Officer of New South Construction Company and CEFGA’s 2018-19 Board Chair, is another CareerExpo veteran. Recalling the event’s early days, he said, “Really, we didn’t realize how important it was at the time, [considering] the workforce issues that we’re now facing. As we look out over the floor today compared to what it was 15 years ago, it truly is a dream and a vision come true.”
While companies and organizations such as New South, Holder Construction, AGC and the Atlanta Electrical Contractors Association are a familiar presence, new faces are showing up as well. Last year, for example, new Worlds were added for roofing and fire protection. Patrick Cordi of Wiginton Fire Systems and Mindy Buckley of AllSouth Sprinkler both were back in 2019 and affirmed the value of their companies’ involvement.
“I had known Scott Shelar and heard about the Expo, so we checked it out,” Cordi said. “Then, through our association, the Georgia Fire and Sprinkler Association, we decided to jump in and do a World. It’s been really successful and we’re looking to build on it. We love the concept of getting these kids in here and exposed to construction and planting a seed, because a lot of them don’t know about fire protection.”
Long-Term Views, Plus Immediate Benefits
Planting seeds of interest and opening students’ eyes to career opportunities is nearly every exhibitor’s goal. As New South’s Smith said, “What high schooler left today and said, ‘Hey, that’s not such a bad career’? That’s the key, to look at it more long-term.”
Sometimes more immediate connections are made as well. Just a few hours into the 2019 CareerExpo, Chuck Little, Human Resources Director for the Atlanta Electrical Contractors Association, had already introduced three high school seniors to one of the 50 employers his organization represents.
“This employer can get these kids into an apprenticeship program,” Little said. “They’ll have the opportunity to go from being an 18-year-old making about $26,000 to, if they’re successful, a 23-year-old making over $63,000 as an electrical apprentice when they finish.”
Just around the corner from the World of Electrical, Elise Berman was part of a large contingent of employees representing Georgia Power at the expansive World of Energy.
“This is my fifth year helping manage this event,” Berman said. “Every year it seems like we’re getting a lot more students, more schools, more school counselors, so we bring a lot more volunteers, especially some who are younger and can talk to the students and connect on their level. We even have our first and only female lineman at Georgia Power here. We’ve got a few engineers, and we’ve got some other folks who are non-technical and can talk to students about things they might be able to do if they don’t want to go to a four-year college.
“What’s interesting to me,” Berman added, “is there are all these companies that are sort of competitors, but today we’re all working together, for the students.”
“We all have the same goal during this event: Let’s get students excited about careers in construction,” added CEFGA’s Robison. “It’s not about us, it’s about the students. Our staff, volunteers and industry partners put a lot of time and effort into this. And of course, we could not do this without our teachers and parents. They deserve a big thank you for taking the time to recognize that there are so many career choices that do not require a four-year degree.”
That sort of big-picture perspective is an important component of the event’s success. As CEFGA and its partners continue to work hand-in-hand to promote the skilled trades, the future is bright, both for the event itself and the construction industry statewide. Zach Fields, Vice President for CEFGA’s K12 Pipeline, spoke of the coming years as “a new frontier.”
Said Fields: “I really think the growth of this event has paralleled the growth and leadership of CEFGA, and not just internally, but because of our partners too. If you look at the employers who have been with us since the beginning, they’ve made this event what it is today and come up with new and creative ways to reach students. We’re doing it better than we ever have before, and we’re not done. Now the only place left to go is the largest indoor space in the state, the Georgia World Congress Center.”