The hours are reasonable. The work is interesting and, at times, artful. The starting wage is about $21 an hour plus benefits.
So on Monday, Buck Paulsrud threw an open house sweetened with Halloween-orange sugar cookies, hoping to entice a hard-to-convince demographic to consider his trade.
“Women don’t think this is for them,” said Paulsrud, training coordinator at the Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 10 Training Center in White Bear Lake.
“They are so underrepresented. We are doing everything in our power to change that.”
Paulsrud’s best selling point was walking down the hall with him. Mindy LeMire isn’t just a rising star in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. She’s a reminder that the college conversation parents and high school seniors have been stressing over for weeks, or months, isn’t the only talk we should be having.
“Building trades apprenticeship programs are a well-kept secret,” said Paulsrud, himself a sheet metal worker. He noted that much of the construction workforce is older and heading toward retirement. That means lots of high-paying jobs on the horizon over the next five to 10 years.
In the second year of her five-year apprenticeship, LeMire attends classes at the training center twice a month, and works full time at female-owned Vogel Sheet Metal. Her hourly wage is $22, but it’s actually a $37-an-hour package, with retirement and health benefits.
Paulsrud jumps in with one more huge perk: “No college debt with us. Zero.”
The Columbus Day event was open to many groups considered good candidates for a variety of construction careers, including returning veterans, nontraditional students and restless midlifers. But promotional materials feature a few faces you wouldn’t have seen in granddad’s day, including a smiling young woman in a hard hat. Another woman wears a utility belt and holds tin snips.
The tools of a 21st century sheet-metal worker look different, too. Yes, you’ll be working in heat and windchill. But along with snips and hammers, workers use computers, plasma cutters and e-readers, Paulsrud said, and solve complex problems with satellite-enabled, handheld devices on the job site.
Safety, too, has increased exponentially.
The training center, housed in a former elementary school, features large, sunny classrooms and countless hands-on training opportunities, from an HVAC service area to a welding department to a classroom teaching plans and specs.
LeMire enthusiastically leapt up several stairs of a mock-up home, onto its roof to point out a roof jack, storm cap and vents, then down into the “basement,” where donated air conditioners and furnaces await repair.
“In our industry, we do everything,” said LeMire, 35. “We build, we make, we design. We turn flat metal into beautiful pieces of duct work. It’s fun. It’s hard work and I like working hard.”
She always liked tinkering with her dad, Michael Louismet, on cars, on decks, or around the house. In high school, LeMire helped her dad landscape and roof. If he needed new duct work, he knew who to call.
“I thought it was cool,” she said. “Maybe not cool to other people.”
Clearly, sheet metal is in her genes. Her paternal grandfather worked as a sheet metal worker in the 1940s and 1950s. Her dad is retired from the trade, as is LeMire’s father-in-law.
Her uncle and LeMire’s husband, Daniel LeMire, still work in the trade.
“We have a long line of tinners,” LeMire says, smiling. “I’m the only women tinner in our family.” She almost couldn’t say that. As a young mother of three in her 20s, she tried, but failed to pass the aptitude test several times. Thirteen years later, she got tutored, came back and passed, which Paulsrud said “is a great example of her stick-to-itiveness.”
She’s hoping to interest her high-school aged daughter in sheet-metal working but, so far, Joslyn isn’t convinced. LeMire laughs talking about mother-daughter shopping trips — to Home Depot or Sears.
“Mom! We have to look at tools again? Can’t we just go look at clothes?” LeMire says.
LeMire’s teacher, Pat Alfonso, calls her “really dedicated,” and full of good questions. But, with just six females in his many classes, he said some remain intimidated by the male-dominated culture. “I tell them, don’t let that bother you.”
Apprentice classes (www.smw10.org) begin in September and March, but apprenticeships can start at any point, Paulsrud said. About 300 apprentices are working at any given time, “and only a few don’t cut it,” he said.
They look for “smart people, people with good math skills, good hand-eye coordination,” he said. And people with LeMire’s dedication and work ethic.
“Mindy is an ideal candidate,” Paulsrud said. “There’s a perception that you have to be big and strong. But you don’t have to lift 150 pounds. You have to really use your noggin.”
LeMire is happy to do that. “Come to work,” she said, “and be on time. It’s life-changing if you can deal with it.”