A Day in the Life of a Skilled Apprentice

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Over the years, our country’s trade infrastructure has broken down, and the sense of pride in working with your hands has been eroded. A disparity between employment demands of the build industry and the shortage of trained, qualified labor is growing wider.

In this three-part series we continue our look at the skilled-labor shortage and the people and institutions trying to change the way we think about trade jobs. In this article we take an inside look at the life of a trade-school apprentice.

See part 1: The Evolution of Apprenticeships

You’re a high school graduate or soon to be one, and you are staring down a few general options for the future ahead. –

  1. Go to college
  2. Join the military
  3. Go to trade school
  4. Get a job

(If you are contemplating a career change, your options are probably even more limited.)

Each option has its pluses and minuses. No option listed is right for everyone. Each person has skills and preferences that will make one option more attractive than the others. Sometimes we know this from the moment we enter kindergarten, but most of the time life is a journey trying to find which path is right.

We talked to four students in the International Masonry Institute’s tile apprenticeship program who gave us an inside, no-holds-barred look at life at a prestigious trade school including whether or not they would recommend this path to a friend.

The International Masonry Institute (IMI) consists of architects, engineers, construction managers, skilled craftworkers and instructors who are combining their shared expertise to offer apprentices what few other groups can: training experience, craftsmanship, design, installation and marketing.

This is no throw away certificate, these are skilled professionals, or at least they will be once they walk out that door. So, what does it take to succeed in a program like this?

It starts early.

“Typical day at a school is a 7 a.m. start,” says apprentice Nelda Ramirez.

After students arrive they start prepping their workstations and materials for the day ahead. Then lessons begin, IMI provides a full curriculum to students taught by fully-licensed instructors. There are also manufacturer-led demonstrations on the latest products being introduced into the field.

“Those are very helpful because sometimes when you are on the jobsite they send you these new products and you’re like OMG, how do I use this?” says Ramirez. “The directions are good but it’s just better to see a demonstration on how to use it from the actual people who make it.”

Then there’s the on-the-job training.

“In the trades they are paying you to go to school,” says Mekia Perrin another apprentice in the tile program, “So now after you finish you have your journeyman card, you don’t have any debt and you have this comfortable living wage.”

But outside of the basics, it becomes hard to describe the “typical” day.

“What I like about this,” says apprentice Sergio Maldonado, “We never have a typical day.”

“We worked at warehouses where its very repetitive you already know what you’re doing everyday,” adds fellow student Marco Pina. “Here it’s always something new.”

There are some constants, though.

It’s hard work.

“It’s not easy work,” says Gavin Collier, Apprentice Coordinator of IMI’s Tile Program, “It’s hard, but you can make a really good living doing it.”

“Of course, the money is the motivator,” says Perrin but, it’s not the only thing.

After college, a stint in the military, and years at an office-job, Perrin was ready for something completely different.

“So tile is something I chose because I wanted to work with my hands,” she says. “After sitting in an office for years and years I got tired of sitting in a desk. I wanted to be active and working in the trades is very active, very physical.”

Not everyday is a winner.

“If you’re going to work in the trades you’re going to get dirty, you know,” says Collier. “You’re going to get cold. You’re going to be hot, but when we teach you a trade it’s something you can always make a living at.”

A career in the trades is all about perseverance. It is not always easy but the rewards are there for those who are passionate about their craft, committed to excellence and ready to go out and earn them.

“It does get better,” says Ramirez who, like the other apprentices featured here, is working on a career change. “There are rewards. The feeling of completing a project. Your paycheck. Everything is beautiful. I would just say get over the bad days.”

But you’re part of a team

You’re also not in it alone. Work in the trades almost always involves teamwork.

“In our trade, there’s us, the tile-setters, and the tile-helpers,” says Pina. “So having a team is big part of this job.”

Working together lets the teams run more efficiently and quickly through a job.

“We can move on while [the tile-helpers]come through and grout. We don’t have to stop.”

Whether it’s a fellow craftsman or it’s a subcontractor on another part of the project, you are always working with someone.

“You can’t do this job without teamwork,” says Ramirez .“You can’t be against each other. You could hurt each other if you’re not talking and communicating.”

Your skills, they are forever

Maybe even more so than completing that chem lab or a writing a term paper, the skills you learn through the internship make you directly hireable.

“Your going to school. This is a skill that can’t be taken away from you, just like college,” says Perrin. “They can’t take your degree away from you.We’re in Illinois. If I want to move, I have my journeyman card. I can take this anywhere.”

Would you recommend it to others?

So what’s the verdict after spending time in the program experiencing the highs and the lows, would the students recommend it to others?

“I would tell them to do it right out of high school,” says Ramirez. “I wish I would have done that to be honest.”

“I have two sons in college and one about to head to college and I’m hoping he chooses the trades,” adds Perrin.

Ramirez agrees: “I tell all high school kids I see – join the trades. Especially, those that are like, ‘I don’t know if I can do college.’ They are not motivated by college. I tell them you should try the trades. They are awesome. You learn so much. I just tell them the benefits of the trades and I got a couple of them to start the process. I would tell them to do it right away.”

International Masonry Institute CertainTeed Keep Craft Alive

Watch more student and staff interviews and learn about the International Masonry Institute as part of our series on Keeping Craft Alive. Above you can see their beautiful tile mosaic that was the feature of our trade show booth.

Up next the future of the trades in a technology-driven world.

Plus, how we are supporting a mission of 10 million skilled-workers by 2020 and a look at the numbers behind the labor shortage.

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