From software to a trade in as little time as possible
November 14, 2011 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Career change filter: Is it possible for an experienced professional in a (mostly) unrelated field to fast-track the apprenticeship portion of trades training?

I'm very ready for a career change. I've got a BS in Computer Science and 10 years in the software industry. This was a huge mistake and I'm now (finally) prepared to accept a substantial pay cut to do something I like better. I believe I'd prefer a trade.

I loved my brief post-high school job working on diesel engines so I'm thinking about being a heavy equipment mechanic or something similar (suggestions?). I'm wondering if a full 4 year, near-minimum-wage apprenticeship is always necessary or if, with plenty of prior work experience and an education, albeit not directly related, I could complete the training faster.

The reason behind the question is pay. I am willing to take a cut of about 50% for the right job but it looks like apprentices make even less than that... Also, I'm in Canada. BC right now but moving is an option. General advice is very much appreciated. Advice specific to my locale would be tremendous. Thanks in advance, Metafilter.
posted by blockhead to Work & Money (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Call these guys: They've been great every time I've interviewed them. They will have someone who can answer you or they'll refer you out. You can ask about fast tracking / challenging too.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:19 PM on November 14, 2011

My husband is an operating engineer (licensed to operate boilers and so on, although he also does a ton of work with refrigeration equipment) and did not go through a formal apprenticeship program to get there. He was promoted from within a from a non-mechanical position, and there was some coursework involved along with a few years of working in shift-work positions that gave him the hands-on working experience but did not require a license in and of himself. When he had enough hours of experience, he was able to apply for a journeyman's-level license. Although he happened to be promoted internally, there were external hires for those positions as well. These positions paid about 2.5-3x the minimum wage to start, although that's in a high cost of living area and vs. the U.S. minimum wage, which is for crap.

So one approach would be to just start scanning the want ads in your area for positions that do not require a license but that pay better-than-apprentice wages, where you would be doing work under the supervision of a licensed tradesperson that could eventually translate (along with some supplemental classroom training most likely) into a license.

My husband now in a supervisory position in the same field, and even with the job crisis in the U.S., they have a hard time filling positions with people who have both mechanical aptitude and the ability to grasp increasingly sophisticated building automation systems. There is decent money and ample demand in these kinds of facilities trades for people who have hands-on experience and critical thinking skills--people who can move from "filter changers" to "troubleshooters", as my husband says.
posted by drlith at 3:48 AM on November 15, 2011

It depends on the rules of the union you'll be getting into. Some unions allow people to skip steps by paying, or by apprenticing with a foreman/master long enough to show the right skills. As suggested above, contacting the union for the trade you are interested in would be a good idea. They probably have night classes for some of the stuff.

Once you've done all you can to prep, strategically apply for jobs. Look for companies big enough that they have a crew of mechanics, where you can learn on the job and hopefully show your skill and aptitude. My observation is that is the way to excel in the trades- get with a good employer. I've known a number of people in the trades who weren't lucky enough to do that, and their careers just sort of stagnated because they were stuck in the union's general pool of workers. Just getting one-off work here and there when it was their turn on the roster.

(I have thought about making a switch like that myself, and my conclusion was that HVAC or the electrical union would be best for me. These are the areas that are getting more and more computerized, and where I assume experience with computers would be a great differentiator for me. But like you, the low pay while getting started turned me off. Instead, I am trying to move toward communications/infrastructure.)
posted by gjc at 5:58 AM on November 15, 2011

If the trade you are considering requires apprenticeship hours then, in BC anyways and I'm betting across Canada, you'll need to put in those hours. the only execption is you might get the employer who first indentures you to give you up to six months credit as part of the indenture process for previous work experience. This is very unlikely to happen for only related experience and should be something you view as a bonus rather than expecting it.

However even in your first year you shouldn't be making near minimum wage, you should be making at least 20-30% over that. And then every year you put in you'll be making a greater percentage of the journeyman rate. As an electrical apprentice for example there is generally a pay step every 750 hours and even a 1st year apprentice will make 50-60% of the journeyman rate.

The Red Seal site has some good information. Navigate to the trade you are interested in and then read the IPG. Industrial Electrician if you can hack it both work wise and schooling pays the best out of the various types of electrician. Most trades are more in demand in Alberta than in BC and as such the pay is often better but then so is your cost of living in many of the high demand locations.

One way you can speed things along, at least from an annual point of view is by getting in somewhere that gives a lot of over time. Because the apprenticeship programs care about hours rather time served if you work 50 hours a week instead of 40 you reduce the amount of time spent progressing through your apprenticeship by 20%. It'll also result in a significant bump to your monthly take home.

From what I've been able to grok apprenticeship in the states works much differently than it does in Canada. Especially in regard to how unions interact with the apprenticeship program. For example most electricians in the province are not union electricians and union electricians aren't held to higher standard of certification than non-union electricians. In other words apprenticeship is open to everyone not just those able to finagle their way into the union. And in fact the electrical union won't even talk to you until you've already started down the path to becoming a journeyman.

Finally it might help to think of the four years as getting paid for going to school rather than working at a low wage.
posted by Mitheral at 8:00 PM on November 15, 2011

Thanks for the answers. It looks like there's little value to my current work experience in terms of fast-tracking the apprenticeship process but thinking of it as getting paid to go to school might help ease the blow of the diminished paycheck.
posted by blockhead at 5:04 AM on November 16, 2011

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