Who here works in the trades?
May 28, 2011 8:04 PM   Subscribe

Any tradespeople out there? I'm trying to narrow down what trade I'd like to go into & have a bunch of questions.

I just started a pre-apprenticeship program that specializes in placing women in the trades, which will hopefully help me get into a paid apprenticeship, but before I get into a 3-4 year commitment to apprentice in a specific trade, I want to make sure I know what I'm getting myself into... So I have some questions. I'm leaning mostly towards becoming a lineman, but I'm also considering becoming a: millwright, tree trimmer/arborist, piledriver, ironworker, or possibly steamfitter.

My general questions are:

What do you like the best about your trade?

What do you like the least?

How did you get started in the trade?

What are the working conditions? How often do you work outside?

What is the entry level wage? How about the top/journey-level wage?

What is a typical workday like? Activity? Hours?

Do you work steadily or do you get laid off sometimes?

What are the hazards of your trade?

Is it physically demanding?

What tools does this trade use? What tools would I need to buy?

If there is an apprenticeship, when do you go to class? How often?

Are there other women on this job?

What advice would you give me i I wanted to get into your trade?

...I'm sure I'll have more, both in response to any answers, and also depending on what specific trades any of you might be in.

Thank you in advance to anyone who takes time to respond-- it really means a lot to me.
posted by mingo_clambake to Work & Money (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
What is the entry level wage? How about the top/journey-level wage?

Apprentice Ironworkers in NYC earn $28 an hour + benefits. Top salary is ~ $60 an hour. Check out the website for Local 40 & 361 Joint Apprentice Committee.
posted by mlis at 9:17 PM on May 28, 2011

For what it's worth, in my area linemen (linepeople?) earn crazy-high wages plus great unionized protections and benefits, while tree trimming is done by scraggly backwoods guys and new immigrants (plus the very occasional hippy who focuses on the high-end work), who earn very little despite the risks and difficult work. Everywhere is different, but I think you want to keep a close eye on that kind of thing, where similar work (climbing high, using bucket trucks, etc) has a radically different risk/reward calculus.
posted by Forktine at 6:18 AM on May 29, 2011

Best answer: I used to be an electrician, back 15+ years ago. I fell into it because I had a relative who was an electrician and I was a college dropout and needed a job. I ended up getting my journeyman's ticket. I can't speak to what the pay level is like these days.

So, you start off as an apprentice. This puts you slightly below whatever is below dirt in the hierarchy of things. Your job includes sweeping up, moving heavy objects, digging holes, going for coffee, and anything else that other people don't like to do. (I did a lot of paddle fan installs because my boss hated them.)

I worked for a tiny contractor (which is to say "me and him"), and we mostly did residential and light commercial work. So, a lot of "go to someone's house and install a plug or 20". Mostly work came in via word of mouth rather than advertising. Usually, we'd get to the customer site around 730 - 800, which means starting the day really early. If we needed to hit the supply house, we'd try to get there before they opened at 0700 because there was always a line of people stocking up for the day's work. Work generally ran until 330 or so - so about 8 hours plus lunch if we took lunch (sometimes we didn't bother and just worked thru). If we could finish up a job that day by working an extra hour or two, we'd do it. Sometimes we'd finish early and there wasn't anything really to fill up the hour or two and we'd cut out early.

You end up working in overheated attics in the summer, cold basements in the winter, and often end up in areas without indoor plumbing.

Things I really liked about my job: going into people's houses and meeting their pets. the tangibleness of the work -- there's a plug there that wasn't there before. the variety - we worked in slums in roxbury and mansions in brookline, ranging from new additions to rewiring existing apartments without making too many holes in the walls. working with people i liked.

When I was doing it, we generally had pretty stable levels of work. Sometimes if things were slow, my boss would pay me to do organizational things like sort through the piles of stock and wrangle things at the shop (ie 'his garage'). Once in a while, work for the day would fall through and the weather would be nice and we'd go have a day off. Since the work is hourly, you can be not working without being laid off.

hazards include the whole "electricity can kill you" thing, plus you're doing a lot of physically challenging work sometimes - a lot of electricians end up with bad knees (from putting in low-on-the-wall plugs) and bad necks (from all that overhead work). if you break your ankle, suddenly, you can't work. you end up getting filthy -- sometimes when i'd be working in really old houses and mucking around in centuries-old dust, I'd still be blowing friday's dust out of my sinuses on sunday morning.

I was a merit shop electrician, so I can't speak to the union's training regimen. I took 3 years of state-mandated night school courses (2 nights a week for a spring and fall semester) that included electrical theory, code, discussions of how things worked, etc, at a fairly basic level in terms of theory[1]. IIRC, in Massachusetts (well, in MA back in the late 80's early 90's), the licensing requirements were the 3 years of night school, 4 years (well, 8000 hours of work across at least 4 years) work in the trade as an apprentice, a written test, and a verbal test that appeared to mostly be a reality check (identify this part, explain how this kind of house is constructed, etc). apprentices must work under the direct supervision of a journeyman or master electrician with at least one licensed electrician per apprentice. if two or more journeyman electricians are working together, one must have a master's license (it's a business license, really).

Outside work was occasional, and somehow ended up disproportionately on either really icky days or really hot days.

You probably just need basic hand tools to start out with, and you may even be able to make do with spares belonging to the company or other electricians to start with -- the basics (ime) are lineman's pliers, a boxcutter, a phillips screwdriver, a flathead screwdriver (mine often ended up getting used as a chisel for chopping out old plaster). If you're doing old work, you'd also want a drywall saw for cutting thru drywall and lathe - don't cut plaster with it because it'll make the blade really dull really fast. Generally, the company provides major power tools (sawzall, big-assed drill with ship auger bits, hammer drill), although once you start getting to a point where you can do side work on your own, you'd want a full set of those for yourself.

When I started out as an electrician in 1985, it took me something like 6 months before I saw another woman at all in an electric supply house. On the other hand, we ended up working with other trades people who had women apprentices. It was this great little community of mostly-queer frequently-related tradesfolks. :) There are a lot more women in the trades now than there were then. There was still a lot of "OH MY GOD A DANCING BEAR LOOK AT IT" from some other tradesfolks when I started out with the associated annoyances. Most of the customers were cool with it, including some folks who thought it was great for their kids to see women in these non-gender-normative roles. I think these days it's still very unusual but not disbelief-inducingly rare.

My sense is that carpentry has the most women in it. My hunch is that more industrial things like welding and ironworking have the least. Carpenter, electrician, and plumber will give you the easiest chance to go off and do work on your own and eventually start your own contracting company. Welding, pipefitting, etc, will give you the best chance to work for a big established company that has better benefits.

uh. that's kind of a long comment. memail me if i haven't blathered enough.

[1] it pisses me off that american schools generally track the stupid kids into vocational education. particularly since these are the kids that are more likely to end up running small businesses. but i digress.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:24 AM on May 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

Your website is brilliant. One can't help hoping you'll pursue it and that it could pay off as well as any trade. Sorry for being off-topic.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:47 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate the sentiment and the compliment, fivesavagepalms, but I really do not see how drawing on index cards is going to net me $60,000+ a year. Could it supplement my income? Of course. Also, I'm sure I would be able to figure out a way to support myself living a very cheap lifestyle with it (as it is, I live on about $3000-4000/year), but my overall goal is to work hard in something relatively well-paying for a few years and then buy some land and build a little off-grid house and do the whole homesteading thing. Once the land is actually bought, I would certainly do things like try to make money off my drawings and other various pursuits, but land ain't cheap and I don't want to have to work 30 years slowly putting a little bit aside before I can start doing what I actually want to start doing. All that's not to say money is the only reason I want to get into the trades. I like working hard at something and then seeing real, tangible progress at the end of the day. I like making things, solving problems, getting dirty, and I actually like physical labor.
posted by mingo_clambake at 9:54 AM on May 30, 2011

going into people's houses and meeting their pets.

true story: so, my then-boss and i have a habit of making up songs about our own pets. This also extended to *other people's* pets. We would talk to them, sing to them, and pet/scritch them if the animals were so inclined. (cats are often *fascinated* by electrician's snakes, as they're just a long piece of spring steel.) We once amused the hell out of a customer because they overheard us riffing about their pets. (I think it was a labrador retriever behind a gate in a kitchen, so of course we started talking about "fee fie foe fab! i smell the smell of a KITCHEN LAB")

so, there are days like that, and then there are days where you spend half of the 90F day in an attic crawl space that's hot enough that the 90F feels comparatively cool, and you have to wear a long-sleeved shirt with your cuffs taped closed and a dust mask because of all the rockwool blown-in insulation.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:27 AM on May 30, 2011

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