6 Strategies to Getting Your First Job in a Skilled Construction Trade
The possibility of earning good wages, benefits and steady work draws many people to the construction trades. Most construction trade and service jobs don't require much formal education, either -- but job prospects can be much better for people who have built a foundation of skills that make them more valuable to employers.
Following is a checklist of skills, traits and strategies that can help job seekers not only get their first job in the skilled trades but command higher wages and enjoy steadier employment as well.
Get a post-secondary certificate or diploma
Community and vocational colleges offer a variety of programs in construction and related trades, such as HVAC service and repair and welding and fabrication. Typically, trade school programs centered on the construction trades culminate in a diploma or certificate rather than an associate degree. Skills learned in vocational school programs are exactly what employers need from new field hands.
As a snapshot, one carpentry apprenticeship program at a community college in Pennsylvania includes basic and advanced study in drafting, reading blueprints and mathematics for carpenters. Job seekers possessing that knowledge most likely can do more for future employers -- and command higher wagers as a result. Carpenter helpers earned national median annual wages of $26,090 in May of 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports, while carpenters earned $40,500.
Bottom Line: For those with the goal of earning a higher wage, formalized training and education may help.
Choose your path wisely
There are several different routes people take to get their first job in construction, says Nate Clark, president and owner of Career College of Northern Nevada. Some new tradesmen are quite familiar with manual labor and using hand tools and excel out of the gate. Others undertake union apprenticeship programs, while a third group chooses vocational training at career colleges.
No one path is better than another, Clark notes, but students who pursue formalized training study standardized curriculum designed to help them succeed in the workforce -- and that's something employers notice.
"Education through a vocational school is more structured," Clark says. "The learning process is in a step-by-step logical format. Students learn the same skills, and while some students learn faster and to a higher degree, they all are instructed the same. That diploma tells employers what skills the person has, and it tells employers that they have got a stronger candidate than someone who didn't put the effort or energy into that training."
Bottom line: Getting an education may help some workers avoid starting at the very bottom.
Know your business
Don't oversell your abilities during the job search. If you don't know how to measure and cut stair risers or tie in all the household wiring to its electrical panel, don't say you can. Instead, make sure prospective employers know what tools you possess in your mental toolbox and the construction processes with which you are familiar.
"You may not have the practical skills to go out and change out a boiler, but if you have what you need and know proper pipe-joining methods, I can tell you how to change a boiler," says Marc Totton, owner of Master Service Plumbing in Reno, Nevada. "But if you don't know how to use the tools for putting things together, if you didn't pick those things up in trade school, I might as well have not hired you."
Bottom line: Be realistic about your abilities, and make it a point to accentuate them.
Totton says this is the number two trait he needs from new hires behind knowledge of the plumbing service trade. Calling in sick or not showing up to work not only costs business owners money that day, it can cost them business in the future.
"Dependability is huge," Totton says. "We schedule two, three, sometimes four weeks out, and I have you scheduled for a job next week, and you take the day off, then suddenly I have to call them and tell them I am not coming or move someone else around. You have to know your guys will be there every day."
Bottom line: Show up for work on time, and be ready to work hard.
This may not be as important in new construction, where tradesmen often only work alongside other tradesmen, but it's huge in the construction service industry where tradesmen interact directly with business owners and homeowners.
"If you are not presentable, they make not want us back again," Totton says. "Everyone has tattoos these days, and I am okay with that, but wear nice shoes and a nice shirt. Be clean-shaven."
Bottom line: You're going to get dirty working in construction, but don't show up to work wearing yesterday's grime.
Eyes open, ears on
When you land your first job in construction, leave your pride and self-assertion at home. Vocational schools and apprenticeship programs teach students quite a bit about the trades, but as in any profession there's no substitute for hours of on-the-job experience. Learn from journeymen tradesmen. Be humble. Pay attention. Doing so can help you more quickly assimilate into a company's workforce.
"It's important to be able to pick up skills on your own and do what people tell you," Totton says. "Learn outside the trades, study books, and work as much as you can. Remember that the guys you are working for have done what they are asking you to do. Don't be proud,"
Bottom line: Tune in to what more experienced hands are saying.
Other factors that could prove immensely helpful in getting your first job in construction are a clean driving record and a dependable vehicle with insurance. Don't forget an alarm clock and coffee maker, either -- that 7 a.m. start time comes around early.