Try the Trades

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2006

A stream of people dressed like extras from a home improvement show passes by the office of Dr. Mary Cantrell, director of the Manatee Technical Institute. There's the guy in a chef's hat, followed by the auto mechanic. Cantrell watches the parade with satisfaction. With local employers begging for more skilled workers, technical schools are more important than ever.

Industry, education and trade associations are reaching out to parents, telling them that college is not the only path to success. As Cantrell says, those social science diplomas often have limited value in today's job market. What the economy needs are more people who can build, fix and make things. These are not the unskilled trades of yesteryear, she stresses; today, the trades are legitimate careers that require a high degree of technical knowledge. Auto mechanics wear white surgical gloves as they work on your Lexus computer system and can make $75,000 a year. Appliance repair, boat building, Web design, plumbing, machining and carpentry require mathematical and computer skills. And rather than being relegated to a life of low pay, well-trained young tradespeople can expect to out-earn many college grads.

Here's a look at some recent technical-school graduates who are finding a promising future.


Field: Automotive Service

Employer: Professional Automotive Services

College wasn't even a consideration for David Alligood when he was a senior at Palmetto High School. He was already training for a career in the automotive service field.

"I've always loved cars-hot rods," says Alligood.

The owner of Professional Automotive Services recognized that passion and sent Alligood, now 20, to MTI after he graduated. Alligood continued working and completed the three-year program in two years. He earns $12 per hour now, and as he gains experience and knowledge in time, he can expect to earn $25 an hour as a flat-rate technician.

Though the pay is good, Alligood says, "Money has never been an issue with me. I'd rather have a job I love to do every day, something that I'm good at. I could never sit at a desk all day pushing papers."

He learned quickly during his technical training that working on modern cars was nothing like tinkering with his rides as a kid.

"The technology from the cars that I used to work on is a completely different deal," he says. "Everything is monitored by the computer, so you definitely need the training. You could learn on the job, but it would take you much longer, and you would have to have someone willing to teach."



Field: Dental Assistant

Employer: Andrew Martineau, D.D.S.

Sadie Martinelli's voice-mail greeting describes her as the student who graduated "with honors" from the dental assistant program at MTI. She talks readily and about her budding career, with obvious pride. "It's not so good if you're not getting your teeth fixed, but it's interesting if you are," she admits.

Martinelli, 25, attended Booker High School but never graduated. She concedes she "drifted off" for a while before giving birth to a daughter-and then came a lot of responsibility. "I knew I had to make sure I could support her and me," Martinelli says. "So I took my GED test in July 2003, and, before I even got my results, I was going through the enrollment process at MTI."

She was already volunteering at a dental clinic, so the 1,230 hours of technical training she embarked on seemed natural. Martinelli finished the course in about 18 months, including her internship.

Working for Dr. Andrew Martineau is her dream job right now, she says, especially compared to her options if she had no technical training: "I would be struggling waiting tables probably, doing the same thing I was before. I was barely scraping by on $16,000 a year. Now it's $22,000 or $23,000. What I'm getting paid now is appropriate for my training."



Field: Precision Machining

Employer: DN Machining

Bryan Kelsey, 21, never considered a four-year college. While being home-schooled, he enrolled in a machining technology program so he could get into the workforce as soon as possible. He browsed through a catalog and toured Manatee Technical Institute before choosing his field.

"I had an interest in a few different fields, and machining was one of them. It turned out to be something I really like," Kelsey says. "I didn't want to spend four years at school. I wanted to get some real skills and start earning money."

Just two years later, he is a supervisor with DN Machining in Bradenton, earning $30,000 a year. "I just did my best and applied myself. I got noticed here," he says.

There is high demand for trained, skilled technicians in machining, doing everything from lathe operation to electrical discharge machining. DN Machining takes raw materials such as steel or aluminum and makes parts for a range of products, including housings for cameras that hang from news helicopters and other electronic uses.

Kelsey started work as an 18-year-old earning $20,000 and has moved up the scale quickly. With the possibility for further advancement, he sees himself staying in the industry a long time. He credits his parents' attitudes with helping him get started. Whereas many discourage technical schooling, his encouraged it.

"My parents were supportive. They just wanted me to do something where I'd be happy."



Field: Air Conditioning and Heating

Employer: Southern Comfort Heating and Cooling

The owner of Southern Comfort Heating and Cooling told his employees he intends to make them the highest-paid in the industry locally if they perform to his standards. Jon Curtis intends to take him up on the offer.

"This company has given me more responsibility and appreciation than I ever thought possible," says Curtis, 19. "As the owner put it, he gave me the ball, and I ran with it."

As a junior at Bayshore High School, Curtis wanted to train for a career in law enforcement. Learning that he was too young, he enrolled in the A/C program at MTI as a backup. It wasn't long before he dropped his original idea. "I started working at Southern Comfort and just loved it, so I'm still here."

Curtis' parents had the usual goal for him to get a four-year college degree, even though his father, a technician with Verizon, had taught him plenty about working with his hands. But, Curtis says, "I'd rather be out in the field working than behind a desk. I've always loved the handyman stuff working with my dad."

As a teen, Curtis does the lower-level work of installing units in new houses and has taken his pay from $9 to $15 per hour in just 14 months. As he gains more experience, he expects to be doing service and, eventually, sales. His goal? "The owner wants his guys to make over 50 grand a year, base pay," Curtis says.



Field: Web Design

Employer: Webtivity Design Solutions

Cory Vanassche was born in the Pacific Northwest but grew up in Palmetto. After high school, he tried MCC and found it felt pretty much like "13th grade." After spending time as a furniture mover, straining his back but not his brain, Vanassche started thumbing through the MTI course catalog. Web design caught his eye.

"I'm a computer geek. That's my hobby when I go home," Vanassche, 27, says. "I went to MTI and just went right into the field I was interested in."

During his second year of training in the computer field, he took an internship at Webtivity, making $5 an hour. He started with simple data entry, moved on to setting up Web accounts for clients and has progressed to the point where he now has some management duties. He has doubled his pay and says he's happy with the company. What most excites him is the potential for advancement and a lifetime career in his current field.

Without the technical training? Vanassche figures he would be working in the restaurant business or still moving furniture. "I could have potentially earned the same money," Vanassche says, "but with back-breaking work."



The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the construction industry will have to add 100,000 jobs annually through 2012 to keep up with growth. It will need to add another 90,000 people annually to replace workers who leave the industry for their own reasons. The masonry industry, the workers who lay the building blocks for our homes and businesses, is a microcosm of the challenge.

Dennis Neal, director of safety and training for Advanced Masonry Systems in Bradenton, says it takes nearly 6,500 hours of on-the-job and classroom training to be qualified as a bricklayer by the state of Florida.

"Statewide, the feeling is that we need to have 500 graduates per year. Last year, we had 50," says Neal. "We are offered more work than we can handle, and a big part of that is the lack of skilled people. We're having a difficult time attracting people to the program and then getting them to stay with it. After a year or two [of schooling], their skills have increased; somebody offers them $15 an hour and they're gone."

Wages right now for a block mason's "helper" start at about $10 per hour for a relatively unskilled laborer. (Neal says low-level employees must sometimes be hired simply "if they can fog a mirror.") After training, apprenticeship and certification, masons make upwards of $20 an hour. Employers would gladly pay the higher wages for skilled workers who do the job better, faster and with less oversight. "Our skilled workforce is absolutely getting older every year," Neal says. "And it is physical labor. We probably would take 50 new employees tomorrow if they were skilled. We'd dispense of some of the people who aren't qualified. But we have them now, because we need bodies."



Florida's 2005 hourly wage estimates

Air Conditioning Technician

Entry $10.43

Experienced $15.62

Average $14.03

Automotive Service Technician

Entry $10.71

Experienced $18.91

Average $16.18

Dental Assistant

Entry $9.96

Experienced $13.64

Average $12.41

Dental Assistant

(graduate of accrediated program)*

Entry $12-15

Experienced $16 - 20


Entry $11.33

Experienced $16.89

Average $15.04

Computer support specialist

Entry $13.19

Experienced $21.00

Average $18.39

"Entry" indicates averaged wages of lower third of workforce, and "Experienced" indicates averaged wages of upper two-thirds of workforce.

Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, Labor Market Statistics.

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