Is a mature-age apprenticeship a good career move?
March 31, 2010 9:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in advice about changing career in one's thirties: specifically, learning a trade.

This answer to this ask has made me seriously start to question how suited I am to white-collar work. In particular, I've reconsidered my own answer to that question, and realised that what I do is fairly repetitive and dull in its own ways.

I have a respectable, relatively well paid office job which I enjoy, but which will disappear early next year, and I'm in the position of figuring out what to do 'next'. What has always bothered me about the nature of the work I do is that I don't produce anything concrete I can look back on; while I read, advise, condense, write and do detailed research for my bosses, there's very little I can point to which I can say "that's mine, I did that". I can say for certain that the world does not need more people doing the job I do.

Is a university-educated bloke in his early thirties likely to enjoy a change of career to, let's say, auto mechanic, cabinetmaker/joiner, or electrician? I'm generally OK with tools, and measuring, and such, but am I overly romanticising trade skills? Would employers be likely to take on such an apprentice?

If there are any of you who've made such a shift, has it worked for you?
posted by Fiasco da Gama to Work & Money (13 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
There is support in Australia for adult apprentices so your age may be a positive. There is a lot of info on the site.
posted by Kerasia at 4:09 AM on April 1, 2010

To answer the question you asked... I know three people who began trades in their 30s, and all are now working for themselves and enjoying their life. Only one, an electrician lady went through apprenticeships - the two furniture makers started as talented hobbyists.
posted by Kerasia at 4:16 AM on April 1, 2010

I don't have any great info to add, and I see you're in Oz which is obviously going to be a bit different than the US where I am, but I did want to add a few short thoughts without scaring you off.

Auto mechanic spooks me right now because your education in ICE tech could be obsolete in a short few years. Then again, with electrics perhaps ready to take off, this might be the ideal time to start looking at those. (Would be fun to play with those beefy Holdens regardless! Wish we had them here. We had the Monaro very briefly, but it's now gone.)

As for cabinet maker and electrician, all I can say is there seem to be bazillions of them out of work right now here in the states. I even read somewhere where the pawn shops in the areas of Los Angeles and Las Vegas won't even accept power tools any more since they already have so many of them. No idea how truly accurate that is, though.

Again, that's in the US, and I don't want to dissuade you. My only intent was to let you know what I have been thinking about and what I see every day, FWIW. That apprenticeship program looks like it's a really good idea, though.

Best of luck!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 5:07 AM on April 1, 2010

I'd be a bit wary of going into the building trades at the moment. There was a big boom in it as construction went wild over the recent past, but now that real estate has sputtered and kinda stopped, there are a lot of construction and tradespeople sitting around trying to line up work.

Also, apprenticeships involve several years of doing the shit work for little money. Not that there's anything wrong with that (it worked for me), but it might be a bit of a shift from what you're used to.

There's definitely a great deal of satisfaction to doing work like that. I spent years doing residential and commercial electrical work, mostly for existing construction, and can still drive through the greater Boston area and point to buildings and say "I wired that."
posted by rmd1023 at 5:45 AM on April 1, 2010

I would encourage you to think of your experiences and knowledge as something positive you bring to a change in career that can help make you stand out as somebody with unique skills. This being opposed to the idea that you're starting from zero as a teenager would, except that you're older.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:09 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know several people who did this. All are happy and employed, even in trades like construction where things are brutal right now. I think they are doing better than most because they are coming in highly motivated, and then have their previous experience and education to draw on. So I can think of people who went into house construction, dessert baking, both auto and motorcycle mechanics, and industrial electrician.

And outside of people I actually know as friends, I keep doing business with people who made that kind of change -- I really working with them, because they are often able to see the big picture and choose creative solutions easily.

So while I can't say "hey, here's how I did it" (my own work history has repeatedly flirted back and forth between blue- and white-collar work, rather than taking one path fully), I can say that at least in the US it's an open path and you can do well. In the US, I would suggest going and talking with the lead instructors at various programs in your nearest community college with a strong vocational program as a starting point. Don't limit yourself to the standbys (auto, cabinetry, welding), but look at smaller or more regional trades. Wind turbine tech? Dryland irrigation specialist? Ferrocement construction? Grey-water reuse? Some of the more niche industries are desperate for skilled people, and that gets you out of the boring production track, where you would be welding the same pieces together all day long.
posted by Forktine at 6:11 AM on April 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a college degree, and got a job as a carpenter's helper in my late thirties. It was purely accidental. I'd gotten laid off and a friend of mine worked for a construction company that needed helpers. It was supposed to temporary, but I ended up liking it and worked up to journeyman level.

There is some prejudice against college-educated people in the skilled trades. A lot of companies have bad experiences hiring college students as summer help, and so people get the idea (with some justification) that college-educated = lazy and not very bright. You can overcome this pretty quickly once it becomes clear you're seriously trying to learn. (I got a lot of 'Wow, nangar has college degree, and he's got common sense too?')

You will have to start at the bottom. Learning a trade is like going to college all over again, and can be a bit overwhelming at first. Your pay will suck, until you've developed some proven skills.

A couple questions:

Do you enjoy solving problems, and figuring things out? (How do you approach computer problems, for instance? Do you you click on help and try to figure it out? Do you google for solutions? If so, good.) Education rewards memorization and following directions, but not thinking very much, until you get to graduate level. When you learn a trade you have to learn to apply your knowledge to solve problems you haven't seen before.

Do you picture things in your head when you're thinking about something or trying to figure something out? Most of carpentry and joinery involves picturing how pieces your making will fit together. Mechanics have to think through how moving parts interact with each other - kind of the same thing, but harder.

Did you do well in math in college? Did you like it? If so, this could help. Math skills are critical in a lot of trades - certainly in cabinet-making, electronics, and construction. (I wouldn't think this would apply to auto mechanics very much.) Having some formal background in geometry and trig will be helpful once you get past the basic level. (Note: I wasn't very good at math in college, and my background was mostly in statistics. I still did OK.)

You have government-funded apprenticeship programs in Australia? I'm jealous.

If you think visually and you like solving problems, I'd say go for it.
posted by nangar at 7:06 AM on April 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Cisco certification and network administration might be an option. There's higher-level network planning and security, and you also make cables. It sure seems like a modern trade, but there are entire career tracks that open up once you're certified. You might also consider the Microsoft version of this training.
posted by Cheesoning at 7:29 AM on April 1, 2010

I would add that, just like in that Shop Class book, most of the guys I know who made the white collar to trades transition found their way into higher margin niches. So they aren't working as rough framers, but rather as custom cabinetmakers, say, in the same way that the author isn't a grunt mechanic at a high volume dealer, but instead has a boutique business working on expensive European motorcycles. Finding those niches means the difference between working for $12/hr until your joints give out, and making a decent middle-class income with a lot of control over your time and art. It's the difference between being undifferentiated labor, and being an artisan, basically. Some trade/vocational programs are aimed that way, but many aren't, and you will want to find your way with some care.
posted by Forktine at 7:47 AM on April 1, 2010

By way of a warning: a friend of mine went through an electrical apprenticeship before he gave up. Why? He found the culture and the level of discourse on the job-site horrifying. Racism, mysogyny, on-the-job drunkeness and all-around stupidity were everywhere. Not to mention that apprentices sometimes get treated horribly. And this is a guy who I consider to be a bit of a redneck to begin with! If you think you might have trouble listening to guys talk shit all day long, it might be a challenge.

Of course, he only worked on large developments in BC, so maybe things are different in other areas, but my experience working in a store that catered to tradesment pretty much bears out his experience.
posted by klanawa at 8:14 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my sons dropped out of a PhD program and is now an electrician and loving it. Good pay, too!

I myself, middle aged woman, have worked as a carpenter.
posted by mareli at 8:32 AM on April 1, 2010

Read your ask this morning (CET) and been thinking about it today -- I was where you are now about 5 years ago, late twenties at the time, and happy my shift did not work out.
I was (and am) in science, academic, and worked in a field that made me feel like one cog in the big machine. I was sure I wanted to be a designer (product/graphic/web, whatever) as I liked web design, toying with flash and CAD and stuff. Tried to get a degree to back me up, searched around, which all did not work out. Maybe I did not go for it all the way, something holding me back, who knows? Anyway, the setbacks caused me to reexamine what really was the rub in my job, and did I really want to do full time +, for a living, even on bad days, what I enjoyed doing one or two nights per week? I mean, I like working on my bike, but 5 days a week bike mechanic? No way. I eventually found a position in a different (very remotely related) field that allowed me much more independence and autonomy. I am as happy as can be.

Not to discourage you, but having an education, and having stuck with that background for 10+ years, might mean it suits you. Dissatisfaction with your current situation is not a positive motivation for a radical shift; I think you still sound pretty uncertain (am I reading too much in your nick?) as to what you want to do, only that it must be radically different. There might be some kind of job in your field that lets you take more ownership of your work and gives more satisfaction than what you currently do.

good luck to you anyway -- it's a tough place you're in.
posted by gijsvs at 1:32 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am an ex sys admin who is now going through the 5 year apprenticeship to become a journeyman electrician with Local 3 in NYC. I am 37 and 2 years into my apprenticeship. I couldn't be happier. I like to tell people I had my "Office Space" moment & had to get out of the office. Yeah, things are rough now for those in the building trades, but my mental health depended on a change & couldn't wait. I find my work very gratifying now. Never did before. There is an honesty about it. That is the best I can do to describe it.
posted by Empyrean_72 at 1:29 AM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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