Apprentices tell their story for new book.

(The following is from the forthcoming book, Apprenticeships: The Ultimate Teen Guide, to be published in 2005 by Scarecrow Press Inc.)

"The first thing you need to do is decide where you want to go with your life," says Matt Whitlock. At 18, he didn't want to spend another four years in a traditional classroom, and he knew he didn't want to spend the rest of his life sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day.

He enjoyed working with his hands and was looking for a career path that would allow him to enjoy that kind of work. Fortunately, he didn't have to look far. With a brother in the sheet metal trade, he knew someone who could answer his questions, like "How do I get started?"

Matt says the way to get started is to go to your local union hall. "Whether you want to be a carpenter, or an electrician, or a plumber, go in and ask them if they are taking applications." (Some unions accept applicants year-round; others take applications during specific times of year.) "They will tell you what to do from there." Expect some competition. "There could be 100 people in line for an apprenticeship."

Matt took an aptitude test. He says taking the test just after completing high school has its advantages. All the schoolwork and math are still fresh in your mind and it is easy to apply what you know. Then, he had an interview. What could be a nerve-wracking experience is really a way to show them who you are, to let them get to know you, and to tell them about the kind of experience you have. Matt says he thinks it helped that he had work experience. "I worked for a concrete guy all through high school. They knew I had been out working and that I wasn't afraid to work," he says.

Once his application and interview process were complete, the interview committee tallied Matt's score, and he was one of the highly qualified applicants to be selected for apprentice training.

But apprentice training means more classroom work, right? Well, yes, says Matt, but the classroom work is very different from the kind of work you do in high school. Never do you ask, "Where am I going to use this? What you learn in the classroom is what you will be using the next day on the job. One night you might be welding and another night, you might learn how to service a furnace or an air conditioner. Safety training is an important part of it," according to Matt.

Just because the classes are relevant, doesn't make the process easy, he says. After long days on the job, it isn't always easy to spend another three hours in the classroom. It makes for very long days. "On school nights, I leave for work at 6 a.m. and I get home at 10 p.m. But, if you want to get somewhere, you have to work for it."

Matt Whitlock works on his project, a copper birdfeeder, during the 2004 Annual Sheet Metal Apprenticeship Contest. Matt won the fourth-year apprentice division that tested his skills in shop fabrication, sheet metal drafting and welding, as well as his interpretation of architectural and mechanical drawings. Photo courtesy of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

On-the-job experience

Matt says he loves the on-the-job training. "When you first start, they really don't expect you to know anything. They give you the easier jobs or you work directly with a journeyman. If you have questions, someone is always there to help you." Now entering his fifth year as an apprentice, Matt says he just "jumps right in" with everyone else.

Working as an apprentice in sheet metal provides great variety, and he likes that. Sometimes it can be a different job every day or a job can last a year. "One day you might be replacing just one piece or a gutter or a piece of a furnace in a house. Another day you might be assigned to a weeklong job installing at a Walgreens or a Mobil station. You might be working with little pieces, or you could be working with 3-foot-wide sheets of metal that run the length of a roof."

As a sheet metal worker specializing in HVACR, Matt says that is one of the best parts of working in the trade. "You might get tired of a job if you work on it too long." The other advantage is the quality of the training. "You get to learn from a lot of different people. At every jobsite, you get to learn from someone else... you take a little bit from each journeyman. Eventually, you come up with your own way."

That variety can be a relief when you are on a jobsite you don't particularly enjoy, he says. "You might be on a job you hate, crawling around in grease all day. Some days are dirty and some days are clean. There are definitely some bad days, but there are a lot of good days."

Competition winner

Matt earned his way to an especially good day during the 32nd annual Sheet Metal Apprenticeship Contest in Las Vegas, Nevada, in May 2004. Every local has a competition and the winners earn the chance to compete in the nationals. Matt won the preliminary competition, and with all expenses paid by his local union, headed off to Las Vegas where all his hard work paid off.

Each apprentice was given a detailed drawing of the project and the raw materials necessary to complete it. This year, it was a copper birdfeeder. With just four and a half hours to complete the job, apprentices are pushed to do their best work in a short period of time. Matt's project was the winner. He says his speed and his welding skills probably helped him take the top honors and top prizes - $2,500 provided by the (Sheet Metal Workers union's) International Training Institute, a $5,000 mutual fund (provided by Invesco) and a Lincoln Electric 500-MIG welding machine.

All in all, his apprenticeship experience has been a terrific one, but would he recommend apprenticeship to others? "If you don't like to get dirty and don't like working hard, don't do it," he says. "For the people who know they don't want to go through college, for those who love building things and seeing the things they have built, yes!" (Penny Paquette is a Massachusetts-based educational writer. Her other books include Learning Disabilities: The Ultimate Teen Guide and Asthma: The Ultimate Teen Guide.)