Mike Jones, director of operations at union contractor The Freeman Co., has been in the trade show business for more than three decades. Today, he said, there is more opportunity than ever for growth.

“The future looks great,” Jones said. “The East Coast is attractive as a convention base because of the high population concentration, and the Washington, D.C., area is perfect for internationals as well. Business is booming.”

The Washington Convention Center, Jones noted, is essentially sold out for the next three years. This kind of growth is not limited to the district and Baltimore corridor either.

According to IBISWorld data, the trade show industry grew by 24.7% in 2022, part of an accelerated rebound and increased demand for in-person events in the post-COVID economy. And market size for the trade show and conference planning industry is expected to increase for the next five years as well, according to IBISWorld.

As the number of shows increases, so does the demand for skilled labor to build out those events. That’s where Jones’ unique relationship with Trade Show Carpenters Local 491 of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council becomes a critical component of his operation’s success.

There is a high level of coordination and collaboration between Freeman and other contractors and Local 491, Jones said. Monthly meetings are held with union leadership to actively address challenges facing the industry, with a focus on recruiting labor and training new apprentices and existing union members.

The easy part of recruiting is telling potential new trade show carpenters why they should consider a career in the union. Local 491 members can take advantage of both an earn-as-you-learn three-year apprenticeship program and free, lifetime training to learn new skills and earn promotions. The combination of training for a career without accumulating debt, while also earning a competitive wage ($75,000 to $100,000 a year on average for journeyperson union members) along with benefits that include full medical, dental and vision care with no paycheck contributions, makes the trade show carpenter union attractive. There is also a pension and annuity plan for all union members to ensure a secure retirement.

Jones has intimate knowledge of the positive role unions play, having spent the first five years of his career as a union member, including being a member of the Teamsters. He also serves as president of the Trade Show Contractors Association and said it’s important to him to leave the trade show industry in a position of strength.

“It’s a new era with new challenges, including a volatile labor market,” Jones said. “Everyone is saying they are short. We’re all working together to solve a problem we all recognize.”

Jones said membership dropped quite a bit during the COVID pandemic, and overall numbers also were hit by early retirements. That sparked the contractors’ association and union to amp up recruiting efforts and do a better job talking about the tremendous value of becoming a trade show carpenter to potential new members.

Instead of having one or two recruiting drives per year, Local 491 now actively recruits monthly, with new training classes each month at its state-of-the-art facility in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

“When people think carpenters, they don’t always think trade show carpenters, but there is an increasing need for skilled labor, including high aerial work and laborers who specialize in graphic design. There is a great deal of opportunity across the industry,” Jones said.

As for why he’s still passionate about his work after more than three decades, Jones said he values the flexibility and creativity. He used to take several months off each summer to be a first mate on a chartered fishing boat out of Ocean City, Maryland.

That kind of flexibility, he said, is almost impossible to find in other jobs that offer the same stability and pay that union trade show carpenters enjoy. Even beyond the steady work, excellent benefits and competitive pay, he said, becoming a trade show carpenter offers the chance to experience shows ranging from the Washington, D.C., Auto Show to major sporting events such as the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

“It’s an ‘experience’ world. The people who love it love it for that,” said Jones.