It took Jean-Andrew Mikesell 15 years to decide he wanted to be an electrician. Luckily for him, his timing was perfect. The Capistrano Beach man started as an apprentice electrician for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 441 in June, and began formal classroom training in January.
“I had to take a pay cut,” said Mikesell, 32, a retired U.S. Marine Corps reservist who previously worked for local telecom companies. “But in five years I’ll be much better off than if I’d continued on the career path I was on.”
In Orange County, a construction boom and aging workforce is driving demand for apprentice electricians, plumbers and entry-level workers in other trades. Demand matches what’s happening across the state and country as the economy improves and government agencies push apprenticeships as an alternative to college for training for middle-income jobs.
As opportunities increase, unions and organizations that sponsor apprentice programs are looking to expand the candidate pool, reaching out to career changers, military veterans and minorities, as well as to women, who’ve historically been underrepresented in the construction business.
Getting a college degree is often cited as the best path to financial security. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, college graduates ages 25 to 32 working full time earn 62 percent more than their peers with only a high school diploma.
But trade jobs can pay well, too. If an apprentice electrician completes classroom training, puts in five or more years and passes a state certification needed to become a journeyman, they make about $36 an hour, or close to a full-time wage of $75,000 a year, plus benefits and pension. Entry-level apprentices start at about $15 an hour, not including benefits.
On the upswing
California apprenticeships fell during the recession when corporate belt-tightening led to a drop in construction projects and higher unemployment. Total apprenticeships in the state declined to 52,763 in 2011 from 60,060 in 2010 before rebounding to 55,280 in 2013, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations.
Ron Miller, executive secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, thinks apprenticeships in the state have hit 60,000 again and continue to grow.
In Orange County, Local 441 hired about 100 apprentices last year and will equal that in 2016, said Richard Samaniego, the union’s business manager.
According to Samaniego, trades are accepting more apprentices in part to fulfill requirements of local construction projects contracts, which stipulate that a certain portion of jobs be filled by local workers, including apprentices. An increase in those construction projects is also driving the need.
In Orange County, projects include the Anaheim Convention Center expansion, The Boardwalk office building in Irvine and Orange Coast College’s $19 million planetarium, among others.
Building trades are looking for new blood to replace aging workers. Miller estimates the average age of 140,000 union tradespeople his organization represents is between 45 and 50. Because jobs are physically demanding, people tend to retire after 25 or 30 years.
Nationwide, women represent about 3 percent of all union workers. As part of the effort to attract apprentices, unions are trying to increase that by hosting job fairs and working with organizations like Women in Non Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER), a Southern California nonprofit that helps teenage and adult women get construction jobs. “We’re always looking for qualified people,” Samaniego said.
Apprentice programs generally require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED and go through interviews and assessments. Once they’re in, apprentices spend time in the classroom and put in a specified number of hours on the job being mentored by experienced tradespeople. Apprentices’ pay increases as they complete training milestones and hours.
Apprentices pay for books or tools, and unions use member dues to subsidize training and other costs. Nonunion apprenticeships are subsidized by employers or through government grants. In September, the U.S. Labor Department gave $175 million in grants to 46 organizations countrywide to train 34,000 apprentices in industries such as health care, manufacturing and information technology over the next five years.
From military reservist to electrician apprentice
Mikesell graduated from San Clemente High School at 17 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve to be a radar technician. He worked odd jobs between reserve duties, and spent seven months at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. After the reserves, he went back to school, finishing a business degree at Cal State Fullerton in 2010. From there, he spent several years at telecom and wireless companies.
A year ago, he was laid off when business slowed down at the wireless carrier he worked for. After the ups and downs of the telecom business, Mikesell said he was ready for more stability. He didn’t have to look far.
He worked alongside electricians in previous jobs and his father-in-law, now retired, was a longtime union electrician. When a neighbor who is an electrician let Mikesell assist him for a month, he was sold.
He applied to Local 441’s apprentice program, with help from Helmets to Hard Hats, a national nonprofit that helps place retiring active duty and reserve military into construction jobs.
“Having been in the military, I can see the compatibility. There’s a lot of structure, doing things by the book, and a huge emphasis on safety,” Mikesell said.
He started on a preapprenticeship basis, working on the Outlets at San Clemente from June until the retail center opened last fall. A union electrician mentor taught him how to pull wire, connect junction boxes, walk with a purpose and stay on task. “The construction industry is all about productivity,” Mikesell said.
In August, Local 441 offered him a formal spot in its apprenticeship program and a five-year contract. Last month he started taking night classes twice a week. During the day, he works for a company doing tenant improvements in commercial buildings in Irvine.
“I look at this as a stepping stone,” he said. “I have to pay my dues, but once I get through and I’m a journeyman, it’s such a broad and vast field. Because of my college degree, I could be a contractor. There’s tons of work on the office side of things.”
Organizations that offer apprenticeships make an investment in people they hire, so do what you can to test the waters to see if it’s right for you, Mikesell advises. “You look better if you can say you’re already trying,” he said. Once you’re in, “listen, and do what you’re told.”