By CARL GREEN
Granite City – Like any field of work, the trades have their stereotypes. Some people tend to think of apprentices as young men, fresh out of school, but that’s not always the case.
Three local women, military veterans with plenty of prior work experience, are shattering that stereotype as apprentices working at Icon Mechanical, a contractor that builds and supplies parts for St. Louis-area building projects:
• Sami Dryden, 37, of O’Fallon, IL, is finishing her second year as an apprentice with Steamfitters Local 439.
• Jennifer Schneider, 31, of Edwardsville, has been working for three months as an apprentice with Sheet Metal Workers Local 268.
• Haley Wagner, 37, of Troy, IL, just finished her first month as an apprentice with Local 439.
All three sat down for a group interview with the Labor Tribune at Icon’s headquarters west of downtown Granite City. All three say they’ve found something worth keeping –– a career in the trades.
“It’s the best job I’ve had in 12 years of working,” Schneider said. “It has a future.”
Not that they haven’t run into scoffers.
“Some of my friends are just shocked,” Wagner said. “If you look at my past history, there’s nothing that would tell you this is where I would be today. But even in the military, I loved going in the motor pool. I loved working on the trucks.”
LOOKING FOR SERIOUS WORKERS
Steve Faust, director of business development at Icon, also heads up the apprentice program. He said there are usually about 10 apprentices in the company and that Dryden, Schneider and Wagner perfectly suit what Icon looks for – serious workers ready to embark on a long-term career.
“It’s always been a focus of ours to try to incorporate not just the military side of it, but women in the trades as well, because we’re seeing more and more choose this career path,” Faust said.
“Any time we’ve got an opportunity to pick up an apprentice who fills all of those bills, who fits right in with our corporate philosophy and what we’re trying to do as far as building our future workforce, we’ll keep them as long as we can. As long as we’ve got work going, they’re not going anywhere.”
Dryden and Wagner have been working on pre-fab components for Pfizer’s new research center in Chesterfield. Dryden previously had a hand in building projects for both Memorial Hospital and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Dryden’s father is a sheet metal worker and welder, so she knew what she was getting into. “I saw him welding from the very beginning and thought I’d try it, and fell in love with it and went out and did it,” she said.
She has worked extensively on process racks – building the rack, piping it, putting it all together and clean-testing it. “It’s just extremely rewarding,” she said. “You can turn around and you’ve got this tangible evidence in front of you of what you did and that you did it, and then you just send it out.”
The apprenticeship is a five-year program – a long time in today’s fast-paced world, but Wagner maintains she is not impatient.
“I’m used to commitment,” she said. “I love commitment. I was in the military for 13 years. That’s a very strong commitment and a lot of hard work. And this is a lot of hard work, too, and I’m ready for it.”
Not long ago, Schneider was managing a QuikTrip. Now she is working at a burn table, cutting pieces for fittings and making fittings.
“The military taught me how to weld,” she noted. “My dad is an electrician at Granite City Steel, and my grandpa was a sheet metal worker, too. It was just natural, I guess.”
PART OF THE BROTHER AND SISTERHOOD
Dryden, Schneider and Wagner are all enthusiastic members of their union locals.
“What I’m experiencing right now is the teamwork and the family that you feel, which is something I miss about the military,” Wagner said. “The military is kind of like the union because it’s very family oriented, and that’s how I feel about the union.”
Referring to her previous work experience, Schneider said the union “protects me and my rights. I don’t have to worry about working a 46-hour week and not having a security guard on the overnights. I’ve got good benefits, I’ve got good pay and I’ve got decent hours. That’s all because of the union. I’m pretty happy with it.”
Dryden’s union activities have extended to political work – passing out literature, walking in parades and helping at fundraisers.
“It’s really supportive,” she said. “You know you’re going to be taken care of. You go and put in your hard day’s work and go home knowing you’ve got it again tomorrow, and they appreciate what you do in the brotherhood. They take you in. It’s just nice having all the guys around you.”
A REAL CAREER WITH EQUAL PAY
Faust encourages both men and women to consider the trades as way to build a real career.
“If you’re looking for equal pay, there isn’t a better place to do it,” he said. “Everybody gets paid the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Here’s the contract, here’s the hourly rate. There isn’t a better system out there for equal pay to women and men than being in the trades and the unions.”
Faust would like to see more emphasis placed on work skills in high schools and colleges but he also sees some progress being made.
“You’re don’t have to choose one or the other anymore,” Faust said. “You can have a trade, get paid, go to school and get a degree at the same time. Everything’s progressing. The unions understand it. We’ve got a lot of guys who are going to retire soon, and we’ve got to build up those ranks again.”