From left, three generations of show attendees are represented by Steve Atwood, Melissa L'Espoir Atwood, Ethan Atwood, John L'Espoir, Elliott Atwood, and Sally L'Espoir.

I was aghast the first time I visited the annual trade show known as the South Atlantic Well Water Drillers Jubilee in Myrtle Beach, S.C. When the doors to the expo hall opened, in poured hundreds of families.

Moms pushed strollers, kids collected trinkets from booths and grandparents kicked the tires of massive drilling rigs.

“These people are not buyers,” I reasoned, “so what are they doing at this trade show?”

Upon inquiry, I learned that bringing families to the Jubilee was a time-honored tradition. The family-friendly strategy encouraged drilling pros to wrap a vacation around the show and helped justify their participation.

Regardless of the rationale, I had to bite my lip every time little Susie and Johnny swiped the pens from our booth. I may have even growled at them.

Fast-forward to 2009 and two disturbing trends.

First, construction-themed event attendance has plummeted faster than shares of GM stock. Some shows are seeing attendance decreases of 30% to 40%.

Second, employers in the trades have struggled mightily to recruit quality workers for years. And the current wave of unemployed or barely working pros surely won’t stimulate talented young people to pursue a career in the trades.

This year, I viewed the families pouring into the Myrtle Beach Convention Center with fresh eyes. I saw a different picture. I now believe inviting families to engage in industry events is the right thing to do.

Here’s why.

More than ever, construction pros need justification during these hard times to attend a business-enhancing trade show, as well as take a vacation. These combo trips are good for their businesses, their industries and their families.

Also, Susie and Johnny are the trades’ best bets for becoming the next generation of quality pros. Those expo-invading kids are being exposed to new products, technology and impressive machinery.

Seeing their parents’ broader industry, not just their worn-out work boots, might encourage them pursue a career in the trades. Let’s face it. We have a surplus of paper-pushing office jockeys (like me) in this country. We need to build the trades.

Meet The L'Espoir/Atwood Family

One booth at the show featured three generations from the same family. Enid Drill Systems from Enid, Okla., has made the Jubilee a family affair for the last seven years.

Enid Drill Systems president John L’Espoir is a long-time industry pro and a regular at the show. He and wife Sally celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary during this year’s Jubilee trip.

John’s daughter Melissa L’Espoir Atwood is the company’s vice president and computer/government specialist. She and husband Steve count on their annual Myrtle Beach trip for some much-needed vacation time.

Their sons Ethan and Elliott have been coming to the show since 2002. At first, they just hung out. But now they are greeters and promoters of Enid products. This year they even dressed like Grandpa John.

The boys are excellent candidates to join the drilling industry. If they do, they’ll bring a wealth of experience from years of having seen, handled and promoted Enid’s products. I suspect they’ll get some great job offers.

Education, Credentials Needed to Retain Top Talent

Long-time show manager Jane Kane organizes the Jubilee, now in its 54th year. She said the open-door policy for families brings generations of well drillers together, allowing knowledge to be shared.

“The young people bring a special energy to the show, “ Kane said. “They are exposed to the industry’s diversity and new technology, which they may one day bring into the field.”

“This year we hosted a youth forum attended by up-and-coming drillers,” Kane added. “These young professionals expressed a desire for educational opportunities beyond CEUs. They want college-level courses that can lead to a degree, with the opportunity to earn credentials in the drilling field.”

Many trades offer apprenticeship programs, leadership development courses or CEUs. Some even offer credentials that recognize the scholastic achievements of those willing to invest their time, energy and funds.

But how many industry shows invite entire families to participate in expositions and conferences? How many trades support college-level degrees for their members?

Not enough.

I would like to see more shows open up their doors to entire families for one day, or at least several hours. Sure, we’ll have to pack extra pens and candy. But that’s a small price to pay to help attract the next generation of talented pros.