How to Become a Skilled Tradesperson
Now, more than ever, the trades offer young folks a lucrative and rewarding career path. Construction, the mechanical trades, and industrial occupations like welding are in-demand trades that could provide either a stable career or a launching pad.
The trades are hiring! The most important requirement? Wanting a career.
Originally posted by Roy Berendsohn on https://www.popularmechanics.com/
Want a job?
The demand for most trades is strong and getting stronger. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts healthy growth in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 percent over the next decade. Jobs associated with building and rebuilding roads, bridges, water, and the power grid are expected to grow by double-digit percentages—faster than the overall economy. Jobs for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are projected to grow 16 percent during this same time period. And projected employment growth across all occupations is 7.4 percent. Construction, the mechanical trades, and industrial occupations like welding are in-demand trades that could mean either a stable career or a launching pad. You might start out swinging a hammer but it could lead to project management, environmental analysis, sales, education, or engineering. I met a bunch of these people in the course of writing this article. And, by the way, that’s how I found my way here. This story is going to tell you how you can do it, too. (Check out our companion article, The State of American Trade Schools, for more info.)
“THE TRADES ARE NOT MERELY AN ALTERNATIVE TO COLLEGE. A TRADE IS EQUAL TO COLLEGE."
The postwar era in America was one of unparalleled white-collar growth. Thus both public and private high schools were deemed most successful if they graduated students to college. But college costs have risen sharply and continue to rise. Forbes concluded a year ago that college tuition is rising nearly eight times faster than wages. A four-year degree is still deemed valuable, but you’ve got to be able to afford it with a minimum of debt and it has to be the basis of a well-paying job when you exit. If not, you’re stuck.
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Given a decades-old institutional bias toward college, it’s not surprising that trades teachers feel like they’re constantly playing second fiddle. “Our biggest challenge today is that guidance counselors push every student into college,” says Jim Reid, director of apprenticeships for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Tim Baber, professor of manufacturing technology at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, echoes that. Speaking about his high-school-age son, he says, “All he hears is college, college, college.” Oddly enough, the trades bear some responsibility. As the construction industry waxed and waned over the years, one of the places it looked to cut costs was training. This led to a shortage of helpers and apprentices. “Journeymen did everything themselves. That worked for a while, but you see where that got us,” says William Fuller, craft development manager for the Houston-area Construction and Maintenance Education Foundation, the educational affiliate of the trade association Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Fuller should know. He was recently named Craft Instructor of the Year, no small achievement for a guy who started out at 13 digging ditches with a shovel. He went on to become a heavy-equipment operator, carpenter, boilermaker, rigger, and crane operator.
ABC contractors are also on the front lines of getting students prepared as early as possible, while they’re still in high school. Trained high school graduates are deemed “trade ready” when they can read a set of plans, set up a job, and work with journeymen. They may stay with their trades training to pursue journeyman status, exit to college, or pursue both. A blended profession consisting of college and trades education that’s achieved incrementally, without college debt, is appealing to many and a smart way to hedge your bets. “The trades are a way to earn and learn,” IAM’s Reid says. “They’re a way to still have college available to you. It’s a way to secure your future.” He started out as an auto-body mechanic, became a machinist, and went on to get two bachelor’s degrees, one in labor studies and another in education.
Another example of the trades-college track is our longtime trades advisor, Pat Porzio, a second-generation tradesman with three trade licenses (electrical contractor, master plumber, and master HVAC); he also has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. Today he’s HVAC manager for Russo Bros. & Co., a plumbing and HVAC company in East Hanover, New Jersey.
Finally, consider Dan Maurer, a journeyman pipefitter with United Association Local 190, a plumber and pipe trades union in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s one class away from an associate degree in applied science. He left general construction and carpentry to pursue the mechanical trades and today does welding, plumbing, and medical gas piping for Boone & Darr, a mechanical contractor in Ann Arbor. A rock-solid middle-class breadwinner, Maurer is the sole support for his stay-at-home wife and two young daughters, no small feat today for any young family.
A future in the trades begins even before you graduate high school, he says: “Pay attention while you’re in public school to the education that’s right in front of you. It’s free. It’s a gift. When you go on from there to pursue a trade, remember that whatever you put into it is what you get out of it.”
I’ll leave the final words of advice and encouragement to Greg Sizemore, ABC’s vice president of environment, health, safety, and workforce development. His advice is directed as much at the parents as the students. “Parents shouldn’t push kids who are performing poorly in the classroom toward a future in construction, assuming that the student won’t need math or communication skills. We want not only the best student, we want the right student.”
“The trades,” said Sizemore, “are not merely an alternative to college. A trade is equal to college. If you’re a Ph.D. and you’re at home on a Saturday night in July and your air conditioner quits, the smartest person around is somebody who can fix that air conditioner. The trades are one of the most noble career choices that any individual can make. Banks would not be built. Buildings to house machines, hospitals, and any other structure would not be built without the trades. It’s a career choice, not just a job.”
The photo subjects in this story are all students at Harrisburg Area Community College’s York Campus. Founded in 1964, when the surrounding suburbs were farmland, HACC is the oldest community college in Pennsylvania and serves 19,000 credit-seeking students and 6,000 other students in non-credit programs. Aside from the building and mechanical trades, you can learn CNC machining, brewing science (coming this May), and information technology at HACC. We thank the students, instructors, and administrators for welcoming us on a busy school day.
So You Want To Be a Welder
Welders use any one of a number of processes to join metal using molten metal. When everything cools, you’ve got a joint that’s as strong or stronger than the base metal. The median pay for welders, according to the American Welding Society, is $41,000. That doesn’t tell you a whole lot because there are some welding specialists out there who make a lot more. Most welders have a certification to weld something very specific, and they’ve built a career out of that, such as gas pipeline welding. They travel the country, and maybe even the world, plying that craft. Many others have a specialty but also weld a wide variety of materials. My nephew Andrew is a good example: He’s a union welder in New Jersey whose specialty is welding an exotic material called duplex stainless steel. But he’s also certified to do a large variety of other welding jobs, some of which are checked by X-ray inspection. Simply put, give him some metal to weld, and he’s a happy man.
The entry path of most welders is pretty simple. Many try their hand at it in a high school metal shop, on the farm under their dad’s tutelage, or out of sheer curiosity they take a crack at it in some other course. Ashlyn Childs took a welding class as part of a summer camp in middle school and took more welding classes in high school. Now she’s enrolled at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, pursuing a bachelor of science in weld engineering technology. She expects to graduate in 2022. She’s worked summers for a company that designs and builds shipping containers in steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. “What I enjoy about welding is that everything I put into it comes back to me. My five- or six-year plan was completely different a year ago. I’m finding new careers in welding every day. The trades are an opportunity to be independent. You’re set for wherever life takes you.” I don’t think any welder could put it better.
Getting Started: There are many types of welding that aren’t critical and require no certification to do safely. Weld a mailbox post, a fence post, a gate, decorative ironwork, or a barbecue smoker, and you’re talking about aesthetics and function. Weld a gas pipeline or structural steelwork, and you need certification for that because the last thing you want is a gas leak or a weld to crack to cause a structural collapse. If your weld training is formal and under the auspices of a union, nonunion construction organization, or technical school, some form of certification will be part of your training. Additional certification (or “certs” in welder lingo) is granted by the likes of the American Welding Society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I advise young people to work with their local community college and the high school’s cooperative education program if it has one. They should also get involved with organizations like the American Welding Society, which has local and student chapters,” says Mike Lang, welder, global director, Corporate Welding Services, Fluor Corporation.
Obscure Tool You’ll Get to Use: A 12-amp pipe beveler.
Great Day: The drawing is clear, the process is one you’re familiar with, and you’ve got enough time to set up the job and weld it without feeling rushed. And you get to work inside, which is good, because it’s 20 degrees outside with a howling wind. Tough Day:It’s 20 degrees outside with a howling wind and you’ve got a day of pipeline welding ahead. You get to lie on your back, on a board. The last guy who used the board forgot to pound down the nailhead sticking out, which rips a hole in your new fire-resistant winter coveralls.
Things Welders Love: A new multi-process wire-feed welder; it’s small, it’s light, and it’s fun to use.
Fun Job: TIG-welding motorcycle frames.
Masons build with concrete, mortar, concrete block, brick, and stone. Some old-school pros still know how to apply three-coat stucco, otherwise known as Portland cement plaster, the thin cement coating you see on many old houses and on their foundations. Masons may pour a concrete wheelchair ramp at a house one day, do a brick face on a shopping center the next, and then move on to build a concrete-block elevator shaft for a condominium complex. The work is varied and, as with carpentry, there’s a wide spread in their earnings. The median pay for blockmasters, brickmasons, and stonemasters is $48,200.
"THE TRADES ARE ONE OF THE MOST NOBLE CAREER CHOICES THAT ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN MAKE."
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you’re physically fit, and you like working outdoors (probably 90 percent or more of masonry is outdoors work), then masonry is a great trade. Things built out of stone, brick, and concrete are long-lasting and difficult to remove. If you want your work to withstand the test of time, it’s hard to beat masonry construction. So what are its downsides? Masonry is hard work. Well, that’s an understatement. Build a concrete-block foundation on a blistering summer day or a brick chimney in the middle of winter, and you’ll be tired when you’re done. That’s also an understatement. On the other hand, I’ve never built anything that was as plainly satisfying as neatly executed work out of block, brick, and concrete. Until you’ve done so, it’s really hard to grasp what it feels like to stand back and look at the work and know it’s going to be there for a long time.
Masonry is not as accessible as carpentry. You make a mistake with carpentry and it’s easier than masonry to set things right. You get a foundation or a chimney wrong and you’ve got a world of trouble on your hands. That’s why almost all masons start out working for somebody. Some get some classroom instruction, especially those in a union or nonunion apprenticeship. Otherwise, there’s a lot to understand that’s beyond the brick and trowel. You have to know estimating and blueprint reading and there’s just a ton of oddities in this trade that you can learn only by doing, preferably under the competent eye of someone who’s well experienced.
Getting Started: Masonry and carpentry are a lot alike in that the licensure and certification requirements vary widely, with many states being rather permissive about who can call themselves a mason and others requiring that you pass a detailed test that will also involve construction law, estimating, and building codes. The point is this: Regardless of what the state or municipality requires, if you’re going to be a mason, be the best one that you can. A hundred years from now, someone may likely stand there and look at your work. You want them to admire it.
Things Masons Love: Fresh mortar, clean bricks, and the spring in the blade of a new U.S.-made Marshalltown or W. Rose brick trowel. Great Day: The new guy at the supply yard got the order right for a change.
Tough Day: The helper just backed the dump truck over your cooler.
Obscure Tool You’ll Get to Use: A four-foot-long mahogany Sands top-reading mason’s level.
Great Resource: Pocket Guide to Brick Construction (free pdf) from Acme Brick.
Electricians are well paid as a general matter, with federal data indicating median pay of $54,110. And the closer these trade professionals get to the engineering end of the spectrum, or the better their management and organizational skills, the more they make. Those credentials don’t come easily or overnight and usually require advanced training in technology, engineering, or business—or all of the above.
Electrical work is cleaner than plumbing, but it’s still hard, dusty work. These tradespeople are, essentially, metalworkers. They spend a lot of time routing and installing cable, hooking up switches and outlet receptacles, and installing fixtures—all are metal. On the far end of the electrical spectrum, they may troubleshoot, test, and repair high-voltage components like switchgear and circuit breakers. High-voltage electricians wear protective clothing to shield them from the explosive power of a high-voltage arc flash—a high-energy spark that jumps through the air from one conductor to another. Its energy is so great that it ionizes the air, causing it to become conductive. Calling it a flash is a bit of understatement. Electrical explosion is more apt. Sounds unlikely to you? Look up arc flash protective equipment. It looks somewhat like a bomb-disposal suit. Okay, so no high-voltage work for you? That’s okay. Many electricians never touch the stuff. But all of them have to get used to working on ladders, rooftops, scaffolding, and scissors lifts. That’s the life of an electrician.
Getting Started: The licensure of electricians is a complicated affair and varies greatly by state. Some states license apprentices and journeymen electricians through union and nonunion channels. Some states only license journeymen, while still others have a separate master electrician and electrical contractor’s license. Some states allow municipalities to set their own licensing. Although some states have rather permissive licensure relative to other states, generally speaking you’ll need several years of practical and classroom training and to pass a licensing exam of some form before you can call yourself an electrician.
Things Electricians Love: New construction on a well-run site with plenty of parking and good access in and out of the house. Great Day: The building inspector just signed off on a bear of a rewiring job in a nasty old house that included a new service drop and panel, two subpanels, and a ton of fished wiring.
Tough Day: The inspector dinged you because your helper managed to weasel his way through a couple of overfilled boxes and even a sloppy splice that somehow missed your attention. You blame yourself, but with your phone going off every five minutes, what are you going to do?
Amazing Tool You’ll Get to Use: Milwaukee Super Hawg ½-inch right-angle drill.
Great Resource: This website run by electrician, teacher, and authority on the National Electrical Code Mike Holt.
Plumbers tend to be well-paid. It’s hard and often dirty, and it has a high licensing requirement due to its effect on public safety and health. Federal data indicates plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters have a median pay of about $52,590. Some of the more physically taxing work that plumbers do can be wrestling with cast-iron pipe and getting a new boiler into a basement and then getting the old one out. And then there’s drain cleaning: Running a power auger through a clogged sewer is not for people with a low gag reflex.
The licensing requirement for plumbers is severe. In most cases, you need at least three to five years of work experience and a specified amount of classroom instruction in order to sit for a state’s plumbing exam.
Getting Started: Many (perhaps most) plumbers start out as helpers in a plumbing firm and go to school at night to get their educational requirements in order to sit for the plumbing license exam in their state. Still others attend trade school or community college or go through the training cycle in a union or merit-shop training program and achieve certification. “Every person is different, regarding their position in life,” Pat Porzio says. “Find a company that’s willing to take you on. Work in the field for two or three years to find out if the trades are a good fit before going to trade school. Find an employer who values you enough, who’s willing to help you with the process.”
What Plumbers Do: Residential plumbers are a varied lot and the work they’re permitted to do by license depends on the regulations of the state where they live. For example, they may do pipe and fixture work for potable and wastewater and the mechanical work associated with heating and cooling. However, most states today have separated the two trades, making plumbing separate from heating and cooling work, which requires an HVAC license (heating, ventilation, air conditioning).
Things Plumbers Love: Smooth and level floors, plumb walls, fixtures that come out of the box without parts missing. Great Day: When the inspector has signed off on the permit without issue and the homeowner comes in and sees shiny new fixtures that work flawlessly.
Tough Day: The inspector dings you for a code violation, your helper didn’t show up, you ran out of ProPress fittings.
Amazing Tool You’ll Get to Use: Ridgid 1224 threading machine.
Carpenters range from being the most specific construction tradespeople (framers, deck builders, and finish carpenters) to being generalists that can frame a house, install vinyl siding, and build forms for concrete. The wide variety of work that they do accounts for why their pay spread is so large, from $21,500 to $60,000. Their median income is $45,170.For a more precise example of just how varied this work can be, consider that union carpenters may frame houses, or they may be pile drivers sinking columns of wood, steel, or concrete into the earth. They may even do the commercial diving and welding associated with this work.
THIS IS HARD WORK. EVERYTHING IS HEAVY.
Despite all that, carpentry remains the most accessible trade. You can start in a high school woodshop and learn how to run a circular saw, a router, a cordless drill, maybe even a rotary hammer or a reciprocating saw. From there, you hire out as a helper. Note: Be prepared to carry and stack plywood and framing lumber. And if you’re not too tired at the end of such a day, read. Get a subscription to Fine Homebuilding and The Journal of Light Construction. And watch everything you can find on YouTube. Years ago, Fine Homebuilding did a series with the legendary house framer, the late Larry Haun. Another fun construction-related channel is Essential Craftsman. Watch suspender-wearing Scott Wadsworth handle a circular saw, review work gear, and swing a framing hammer. It’s good stuff from a guy who’s been there, and it’s very entertaining.
This is hard work. Everything is heavy. And carpentry means being comfortable on ladders, scaffolds, sloping rooftops, and scissors lifts, and crawling through attics and crawl spaces. If dust and noise and heights and heavy things aren’t a good fit, look elsewhere for your profession.
Getting Started: If you go the community-college route or undertake a union or nonunion apprenticeship program, you’ll end up with a piece of paper that says you’ve completed training. But, frankly, most carpenters have no official piece of paper. Many good carpenters learn on the job. When they go out on their own, they either get a contractor’s license or they sit for the state exam. The states that bother with this have also gone to the trouble of developing exams that are tough, involving more than just knowledge of rafter-framing angles. These exams can get into business law and liability, worker safety, and a lot of building code.
Things Carpenters Love: An empty lot with good access, plans prepared by an architect you know and like, and a load of lumber properly bundled and placed right where you need it.
Great Day: The helpers show up on time, the weather’s good, the plans are clear, the foundation is square, and you wonder why anybody would do anything other than carpentry.
Tough Day: The helpers have disappeared.
Amazing Tool You’ll Get to Use: A Swanson Speed Square.
Great Resource: Swanson’s Little Blue Book of Instructions for Roof and Stairway Layout.
Popular Auto Mechanics
If you want to be an auto mechanic, you’ll never be one without work. We know, that’s a pretty broad statement. But I’ve never known a good mechanic who went hungry. The economy will wax and wane; dealerships will close; others will open. Car sales will go up; car sales will go down. But it’s also indisputable that even electric cars will have parts that wear out or break. That’s not economics. It’s physics. It’s the law of entropy. Think of a car as being on a continuum: Somewhere between the shiny new car and its place on the scrap pile is (drum roll) you.
So we’ve established that if you want job security and decent pay, being a mechanic is a pretty good thing. Unlike the construction trades, that can be hampered by everything from the weather to the stock market, not so with the mechanic, who works indoors, clocks a regular work day with overtime when needed, and that’s about it. It’s good, steady, reliable work with a median wage of $39,550; federal mean wage data shows $42,660.
So you’ve got job security to look forward to. That’s a good thing. As any mechanic will tell you, the trade is tough. You spend a lot of time working with your hands over your head with a car on a lift and you spend a lot of time leaning in from the side or the front of a car. Both are tough on your lower back. And there’s grease, dirt, and the noise of air tools. But unlike the building trades, you work inside under more or less controlled conditions. If you have that inherent desire to fix a broken thing or make a mechanical thing better, then being a mechanic is about as good as it gets.
Getting Started: There are two sure ways to prove you know what you’re talking about when it comes to automotive service. One is the piece of paper saying you completed a community or technical college program and the other is certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE. I’ve known some great technicians that didn’t have any certification. But these two standards (and they generally work together) are coin of the realm in today’s auto-service world. And there’s also a ton of minor certifications that you can tap into to learn about the newest automotive widget.
Things Mechanics Love: A clean, well-run, and well-lighted shop with a plentiful supply of Gojo. Great Day: An owner presents a car with a drivability problem that won’t code (there’s no stored diagnostic trouble code). After interviewing the owner, taking the car for a test drive, and running some basic diagnostics, the problem turns out to be a misreporting mass airflow sensor caused by nothing more than a loose wire. Minor repair. You’re a hero.
Tough Day: The same thing happens but without the loose wire. The owner wants answers, and you can feel the pressure to start replacing parts, gambling that you’ll fix the problem by probability. You don’t cave to that impulse, but tell the owner you’ve got more diagnostics to do.
Obscure Tool You’ll Get to Use: A video inspection scope that helps you inspect inside door cavities, under manifolds, behind and under a pump assembly.
Great Resource: The website for ASE.
Where the Military Can Take You—And Where It Can't
Every branch of the military needs people with building trades and mechanical expertise because the military builds and maintains both permanent and temporary structures of various kinds. It also operates, maintains, and repairs a wide range of vehicles, including the world’s most sophisticated aircraft, earth-moving machines, tanks, trucks, and cars. It does things that no other construction company or mechanical entity can match. On short notice, it can deploy anywhere in the world and rapidly build an airfield, docking facility, or other military installation. This is exciting, and it can be dangerous, particularly under combat conditions.
Some of what the military will train you for is a hand-and-glove fit for work in the civilian sector, some of it not so much, but all of what the military trains you for is to accept responsibility, and at a young age. Are there qualifiers? Of course. As the military itself will tell you, it doesn’t guarantee you a slot in exactly what you want. Your assignment is based on how you do on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the length of your enlistment, and, of course, what the military needs.
“Military training is second to none,” says Bill Lego, a Navy veteran and electrical contractor in Rockford, Illinois. “But remember that the military’s needs come first. It’s not day care or a self-fulfillment adventure. You can’t take gap years or choose where you’d like to live.”
How To Find the Right School
Few life decisions have a more profound impact on your future than the choice of where to continue your education after high school. Lifetime earnings and even personal health are closely tied to postsecondary education. As explained in my story on the state of American trade schools on popularmechanics.com, graduating from an occupation-specific trade, technical, or career school can lead to just as lucrative a job as a traditional four-year degree. There are thousands of school choices. These tips can help you or someone you care about make a smarter decision.
Consult the College Scorecard: The Department of Education’s College Scorecard may be the best, simplest, and most up-to-date online resource out there. It lets users customize school searches by area of interest, specific programs, region, and cost. For instance, inputting a zip code in Grove City, Ohio (43123), and searching for “construction trades” programs within a 150-mile radius yields five schools and provides side-by-side comparisons of average annual cost, graduation rate, and salary after attending. The College Scorecard gives you a macro view of choices for any type of postsecondary option, from prestigious universities to lesser known but excellent career schools.
Don't Forget Your Local Community College: Trade and tech schools may brand themselves more precisely to occupation-related programs, but the nation’s community colleges have been training skilled workers for decades and often have more established instructors and reputations. “Community colleges tend to be places where vocational training is taken seriously and is done with integrity, and we need more of it,” says Barmak Nassirian, director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “We take pride in our finest academic institutions as we rightly should, but most industrial countries have superlative institutions that compete with our finest in this country. The real genius of this country is its system of mass education, and community colleges are the base of that in terms of postsecondary education. Community colleges are the backbone of American higher education if you think about their imprint and footprint and the people they touch.”
Know Where To Find Financial Aid: Plentiful federal financial-aid options are available for what the federal government designates as “vocational, trade and career schools.” The Institute of Education Science’s online College Navigator helps students assess career goals and education options. In addition to providing general school information, including tuition, fees, and estimated student expenses, it helps identify types of financial aid provided for specific schools and programs and default rates for students with student loans.
Be (Very) Wary of Misinformation. There are plenty of reputable private trade schools around the country. Forbes listed the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, and Johnson College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, among its Top Trade Schools for 2018. But prospective students should be aware that deceptive advertising and outright fraud exist.
“Funding is based on enrollment, so the incentives for some schools are such that as long as they get people to sign up they stay in business,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale has served as an expert witness in court cases that have closed down more than 30 private schools.
“Our basic role in all these things is to look at the programs and see if they’re worth it. For instance, if they promise you by taking this criminal justice program, does this person actually get placed as a police officer? Do they cut corners? You do a criminal justice program, you spend a lot of money because you want to become a police officer, and then the only work you can get is work in retail. Well, the institution claims you are working in criminal justice because you’ve got to watch out for shoplifters. That has actually happened. That’s a real case example. They’re easy to get. But it’s the same all over.”
“When you look at the business model, consumer fraud is the business model,” says Nassirian. “I would absolutely encourage people to be skeptical. Do not go to one of those sham tech training institutes. There are lots of them. If it’s a for-profit institution I would be exceedingly careful. The problem is lots of for-profits are now converting to fake nonprofits, so the nonprofit designation alone is not an assurance. In the old days you could rely on antiquity. If a school says it was established in 1876 that was some assurance. But we have an environment now that is favorable to fraud. A place might be founded yesterday and through acquisition you purchase someone’s marque that says you were founded in 1876.”