By Craig Triplett
Becoming a union tradesperson can be a highly rewarding career. The benefits and pay are good; you can start your career at an early age, without the worry of student loan debt; and you can see the results of the work you do every day, which creates a great sense of pride.
My area of focus – carpentry – offers a number of specialties, including general construction, concrete, flooring, mill-cabinet, millwright, pile-driver, interior systems and lathing. For young people looking to become a carpenter apprentice, or if you know a young person who is, there are a number of online resources that walk you through the exact process for signing onto an apprenticeship in your area.
Each program requires specific skills, which the apprenticeship program will teach – but before you even go into a program, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.
Here are the five most important things an apprentice should know before choosing a carpentry trade as a career:
1 – You make your own success. Anyone can work in the trades, but some will move up faster than others.
Some keys to being successful in the trades include showing up every day on time; honing your math skills; being able to follow directions; and doing the job asked of you. You can’t complain or drag your feet because the foreman asked you to do something you don’t want to do.
2 – Construction is hard work. It’s physically demanding, and when you’re just starting out, you’ll be sore in places you didn’t even know you had muscles. Fortunately, your body will adjust to the work over time, and you’ll get stronger.
Every day, you’ll be out working in the elements. On a sunny, balmy spring day, this will be a plus, but there will also be plenty of days in the rain, snow, cold or blistering heat, and you can’t just go home because the weather is bad.
3 – Your schedule will vary. Construction isn’t a 9-to-5 job. The workday starts around dawn, and you may have to drive two hours to get to your jobsite. You’ll need a vehicle, because most jobs aren’t on a train/bus line.
You can expect to put in some overtime; instead of going home at 3:30, you may end up staying for another two or three hours to finish what has to get done.
One week, you may only work two days because of delays or the weather; then you may have to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for the next month to get the job done.
4 – Budgeting is a necessity. Work isn’t guaranteed day to day, so you always need to take any overtime you’re offered, because you could be off the whole next week.
We build something knowing it will eventually be completed – meaning we work ourselves out of a job every day. We just hope that we did a good enough job that the contractor has another job for us to go to, and chooses to send us to do it.
5 – You have to earn your promotions. In theory, people start out as an apprentice or journeyman and work their way up to being a leadman, foreman, etc., but all of that is based on work ethic and the quality/quantity of your work. You don’t deserve anything except a paycheck for the work you did – you have to earn those titles and career advances.
If your foreman has you cleaning up or moving material, get it done as fast as you can – they won’t send you home early, but what they will do is start teaching you. If you take all day, that’s what you’ll do every day, and you’ll never learn enough to advance.
In addition to deep trade knowledge, you need leadership qualities to run a crew. Watch what other leaders do and how they act toward everyone else on the crew, and emulate them.
Craig Triplett (Local 58) is the Assistant Training Director at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Apprentice and Training Program.