Act Two: Pursuing a Second Career in the Skilled Trades with Bre DePottey, IBEW Apprentice

I was a personal trainer for about 10 years before this. I worked for different chiropractors, and ran a gym in Vassar for a couple years. I went to college for exercise science and I had my associate’s degree, but I had a lot of debt from that. I lived in Chicago for a brief period and people out there have money to spend on personal trainers. With people around here, I found it’s just not their priority or as emphasized here as it is in cities, where people have more disposable income. It was frustrating, because I was making decent money training, but not what I thought I would and student loans are expensive.

One of the reasons behind why I switched gears was I was interacting with a woman at the gym who was the parent of a friend. She came in and we chatted and low and behold, she was a retired electrician. We became buddies and she asked me, ‘Hey, would you want something different career wise? Are you looking for something a little more challenging that pays pretty well?’ That helped to inform me about the process and I applied later on.

This was about five years ago in 2017 and I had just turned 30 when I got accepted into the apprenticeship program. Being 30 when I made that change and going against all these guys who are coming straight out of high school or at best 20 or 21, it was just a whole different ball game. It was also a change from the traditional college setting where book smarts were what was valued. Here it is important to have the hands-on work ability. Written tests still exist to reinforce what you learn on the actual job sites, but it’s about what you can do with your hands. So, it was very different and a little intimidating at first, but it was also very exciting.

I picked it up really quickly because honest to goodness, I’ve always been addicted to learning. It was just a matter of getting started. Because once Sheri, the woman at the gym, talked to me, I decided that I at least wanted to know enough so no one could rip me off and enough to be self-sustaining where I don’t need to call anyone, I can fix something on my own.

I grew up in the country on 80 acres and played on four wheelers. So, I could tinker, but I could not do anything extravagant. But I wasn’t afraid to get dirty and I think that combination was just enough to make me a little dangerous.

I was the only woman in class and it was kind of nice, because we’ve got another guy who’s my age, so he’s in the same boat and it’s kind of nice to connect on that level. It was nice because initially, a lot of these guys would show me stuff because I was the girl and they would think I didn’t know anything.

Now, I’m a fifth-year apprentice and it’s a five-year program. So, I’m on the last leg of my journey. This year, around August or September, I’ll take my journeyman’s test and if I pass that, then I will get my license at the state level.

Getting paid throughout the program was one of the appealing things. They give you the whole spiel, but when you look at the breakdown of pay, initially I was making a percentage of what the journeyman rate is. By the time I was a third-year apprentice, I was making $20 something an hour. Now as a fifth year, I’m making $31 an hour, so it pays great and I’m truly getting paid to learn.

There are book payments that you have to make and you do give up two days a month to go to school, so you’re not getting paid for those days. But other than those costs, there’s no debt involved and you’re making really good money on the job and advancing your skills to make even more money someday.

Now, I’m making as good, if not more money than when I was training. When I first joined, I took a $7.00 an hour pay cut to join the union. That was a lot to swallow and it was rough at first. You stress about it at first, because that’s a big loss in pay. But after your probationary periods, which is six months, you’re bumped up. Then after that first six-month period, you get another raise. By the time I was two years into it, I was back to making what I was at the gym. After that point, it was just a bonus and also came with job security.

They call this a great career for a reason. I can take these skills anywhere in the country and go to work somewhere. So, if work is bad in Michigan, like we all know it can get in the winter, I can go to any state where their license complies with Michigan regulations. The last time I checked there were 12 states right off the bat. So, you have options to move around and you’re not just stuck on the unemployment line come winter, you can go places if there’s not a lot of jobs in your area.

For other people considering a skilled trades career path, I would say you get what you put into it. You can go through it and just do enough to be dangerous, but if you work at it, it can be very rewarding. There are a lot of good people willing to teach you if you’re willing to pay attention. But you have to have that self-motivation to do it. If you’re willing to show them that you want to do well, they are absolutely willing to show you. My advice would be to learn as much as you can, but you’re only going to get out what you put into it.

Now that I’m in my last year, I can say that I’m really surprised about this journey. Being a woman in this trade, and there’s only a handful of us in the area, I honestly thought it would be intimidating. The guys are actually a lot better than you’d think they’d be. I would really encourage other women to not be afraid to give it a go. The guys are actually really good and I would hope women would actually give it some serious thought, because it’s a good career. The group of guys that I’ve been with are very supportive, which is nice.

The jobs also aren’t working with huge wires that you’re pulling or doing the same work that your dad did. There are things like installing fire alarms, which is cable and there’s all sorts of different sections that people can get into. I really wish women would realize that this is a good career choice and it’s not just what one thing. There’re so many different facets to it in the industrial and commercial spaces.

It’s also varied. The job I’m on now is probably going to be for a few months. I was on a job for two months over in Caro, previously. Then before that, I was with somebody in a service van for eight months. It just depends on when these companies put out calls and they all vary, which is nice, because it mixes it up with the different things you’re working on.

– Bre DePottey, Fifth-year apprentice with IBEW 557

Interested in learning more about careers and training opportunities in the skilled trades? Check out the Complete Guide to Skilled Trades in the Great Lakes Bay Region here. The guide features all the different training programs in the region, websites, requirements to apply and more!

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