Trades and apprenticeships: Building for the future
For young people entering the engineering and construction industry, there are many benefits to starting a career through trades and apprenticeships. I entered the field as an apprentice at the Norfolk Naval shipyard, which provided the opportunity to enter the workforce with a desire not just to learn a trade but to develop myself in the field of practical engineering. This apprenticeship afforded me access to both higher education and practical, on-the-job training under the supervision of master ironworkers.
My mentor, “Old Man Schiarelli,” was in his late 60s and still fabricating steel sections for naval ship repairs. During my time working with him, I was fortunate to learn the application of geometry and the finer points of understanding accuracy in measurement. My apprenticeship was designed to provide experience working on submarines, on surface craft, in the shop and in the classroom. These four distinct experiences, with the combination of classroom education and practical education under the guidance of a mentor, had a profound influence on shaping my career as an engineer. From my own experience starting in the industry, and from my perspective now as the leader of an engineering and design firm, I encourage individuals who are interested in the engineering and construction industry to pursue career pathways through trades and apprenticeships.
Benefits of apprenticeships
My early experience working with a mentor enabled me to more quickly develop an appropriate mindset about the skills and knowledge required to be a successful engineer. When first starting in the field, young professionals have an underdeveloped appreciation for the details of the work. For example, my mentor instilled in me an understanding of the importance of accuracy; without the practical experience working under a mentor, it would have taken time for me to gain that appreciation by making my own mistakes. By coupling the apprentice with a master tradesman, the apprentice can more quickly understand how the teachings conveyed in the classroom are applied in the field.
Another key benefit of an apprenticeship is gaining hands-on experience with the behaviors and limitations of materials or systems that cannot be fully understood from a classroom setting. While I encourage professionals interested in design to receive a formal education, there is tremendous benefit in gaining hands-on experience before going to design school. Through an apprenticeship, an individual can approach the classroom setting with a foundational understanding of how the materials and systems behave and thus how they should be incorporated into a design.
This idea of coupling hands-on experience with formal education is not new. Ancient civilizations recognized this as the natural development process of a great architect or engineer and required that they first work a trade for many years. Upon mastery, an individual would be allowed to work on the “calculations” of a design, working toward the opportunity to synthesize all that they had learned into a full overall design. Many of the Renaissance masters followed this paradigm, including Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Brunelleschi.
Choosing a career path
Now that I have spent several decades in the engineering and construction industry, I have had the opportunity to work not only with professionals from different backgrounds but to build extremely skilled and talented teams comprising individuals with diverse experience and education. With my current firm, we believe strongly in the benefits of hands-on experience. Our services do not stop at the design table, so we look for professionals with practical experience who are unafraid of working with their hands as well as their minds to further advance their skills. When individuals can demonstrate the ability to apply what they learn from both the classroom and from experience working under talented mentors, they will be sought after by firms such as mine.
When I am asked about how best to get started in the engineering and construction industry, I encourage individuals to consider multiple paths. In my experience, many great minds have been underserved by the competitive nature and limited availability of higher education programs. At the same time, as our industry continues to grow, the demand for talent outpaces its availability. I encourage those starting in the industry to consider trade school at a community college. Many of these schools foster relationships with local companies that value apprenticeship applicants. Spending a year of formal education in a trade school will help with preparation and placement to be successful in a long career of continued learning.
When choosing among engineering firms, whether as an apprentice or new graduate, I encourage individuals to seek out those that have demonstrated a commitment and desire to educate and develop their staff. These firms encourage young professionals to ask questions, provide opportunities to learn from experienced mentors, and focus on growing young professionals to become the next generation of mentors.
The power of shared craftsmanship
There are so many opportunities that lie within the fields of engineering and construction, and there is not a single best path to follow. Since my early days learning from mentors like Old Man Schiarelli, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best minds in the industry. By getting my start as an apprentice, I gained an appreciation for combining classroom and hands-on experience to help professionals grow in their knowledge and skills. As our industry continues to develop the next generation of professionals and mentors, I am guided by the wise words of Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”