Last updated on May 29th, 2022 at 10:51 pm
Deb Richards’ journey to become a steamfitter started at just four or five years old, when the “pretty blue light” from a man welding in front of her house caught her attention. Her mom lost track of her and she wandered out to the truck, looking at the light.
The man, whom she would eventually come to call “Dad,” picked her up, put her on the back of the truck and gave her a task to help him out.
When Richards’ mom found Deb, she gave her a scolding, but her future dad’s reaction showed less concern.
“He just smiled and laughed and said, ‘Well, she’s going to be a welder someday,’” Richards said.
Today, Richards is an instructional chair for HVAC and refrigeration apprenticeships at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a journeyman steamfitter. She was once an apprentice working on the Bradley Center and now has students doing the same on the new Bucks arena. Some of the apprentices she’s teaching today are the sons of men with whom she did her training.
“It’s like seeing your own kid in the classroom,” she said. “The only thing I regret is not seeing enough diversity.”
It wasn’t a straight line from being a little girl on the back of a welding rig to journeyman steamfitter. At 18, her adoptive dad asked her what she planned to do and college was the answer. She wanted to go into natural resource management and environmental law but couldn’t find a job after graduation. When he suggested she take advantage of the apprenticeship offer she had before school, Richards opted for graduate school instead.
Richards was nearly finished with grad school when she realized she wasn’t going to be able to make a living in the career she wanted. She changed course and applied for an apprenticeship.
The pathway of four-year degree to apprenticeship is a common one for Richards’ students. Nearly all of the roughly dozen third-year apprentices she was teaching one morning in December had attended a four-year school for some amount of time.
But when Richards made the switch, her four-year degree was more of a liability. She was seen as someone who was more likely to go on to another position after receiving her training.
“That’s evaporated,” she said. “Most people have realized that a four-year degree means that you had the perseverance to complete something but that doesn’t mean you were successful in getting that job. You’re focused; you’re striving to make yourself better.”
The average age of apprenticeship registrants in Wisconsin last year was 28.4, and it has mostly trended down since reaching 30.2 in 2009, according to Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development data. At the same time, the average amount of schooling among active apprentices at the time of registration has trended up in recent years, from slightly less than a semester of college to slightly more than a semester.
“I went to college, got a degree and hated my office job,” said Andy Haas, one of Richards’ third-year students. “I wasn’t making a lot of money; I heard about the apprenticeship program and was lucky enough to get in.”
He said he spent the first year learning the tools of the trade and how to use them.
“It seems like the more I do it the more I like it, the more I understand the systems and everything that’s going on,” Haas said. “Every system is different, so you learn something on every job.”
Richards said it takes time for someone to develop skills in pipe welding and she pointed out with pride where apprentices had done work on MATC’s Oak Creek facility, where she teaches.
“The steamfitter does the heart of the building,” she said. “If the piping goes it’s like having an artery blow.”
Like Haas, many of the other students said they found their way to an apprenticeship by word of mouth. Maybe they had a friend in the trade or maybe their family worked in it. Some commented that it wasn’t something pushed in schools.
“There’s no spotlight on the trades,” Richards said. “Unless you have family members that understand what the trades are, they have no spotlight.”
She said when schools reduced their investment in shop classes, fewer students were interested in the trades and it contributed to her decision to go to a four-year school.
“There’s a part of me every once in a while, I wish I would have went to the trade first, but I wouldn’t be here if I did. That four-year degree got me my job here,” she said.
Richards started by teaching welding to incarcerated individuals before moving on to teach Saturday classes and eventually taking a full-time position at MATC. She continued her own education and ended up with a master’s in education.
“I’ve never not been in school; school is huge,” she said. “The trades teach you that.”
Richards said the trades have also taught her that her skills are what can put her to work on a jobsite and, as a woman pursuing advanced types of welding services – and doing them well – she can sometimes rub people the wrong way.
“There are sides of this trade that aren’t so romantic. Things that people shouldn’t want to have to put up with,” she said.
Especially in her early days, there were times at which heavy equipment made the job difficult, but she found a way to get the work done.
“You work smarter, not harder,” Richards said, adding that she tries to pass that message on to her students.
“In all honesty, women make better welders than guys,” she said, noting it is primarily dexterity-based work. “When 52 percent of the population is female and you only have 1 percent in your industry, a resource is being underutilized … but yet we don’t go after female welders because there’s heavy pipe. It’s hot. It’s nasty. It’s dirty.”
Richards said she could probably count on two hands the number of women she has taught out of the more than 600 who have learned from her over the years.
There have been 34,795 apprentice registrants across all trades in Wisconsin since 2006 and 13 percent of those have been women, according to DWD. The highest percentage of women in any single year during that time was 20 percent in 2009. Since then, it has steadily trended downward to just 6 percent last year.
While the group of third-year apprentices shared a lot in common with Richards – turning to the trades after an undergraduate degree, working on a brand new arena – there were no women in the class.
She said attracting more women to apprenticeships could help foster an even more diverse workforce in the trades.
“The way we can cultivate it is by changing where (students) meet this diversity,” she said, adding that apprentices know they will have her teaching them somewhere in their training. “Out in the field, they may never see a Deb for 20 years.”
Richards said middle school would be the best time to talk to girls about potentially going into the trades. Some of the groundwork is already being laid, with Girl Scout groups coming in for badges and other days dedicated to helping students explore the trades at schools.
“Is it clicking? I don’t know; we will see the end results shortly,” Richards said. “I’m not a person that likes to be out front … but it’s time, I’m at the end of my career, for people to start seeing there is nobody following behind me.”