Old-School Skills Meet New Demand
by Diane Bosser
An alarm sounds at 4 a.m., rousing Lily Landau ’12 for the day ahead. In the dark mornings, she dresses for work—jeans, steel-tipped boots, sweatshirt. After a few chores and quick breakfast, she hustles out to join the early commuters. The petite suburban mom arrives at work, a steel and concrete structure rising on the corner of Rockville Pike and East Middle Lane. Donning a hard hat and safety vest, she ducks inside through strips of plastic sheeting that hang over the building’s main entrance.
By 6 o’clock, Landau and the other workers—journeymen, apprentices, and foremen—sign in and gather at the central supply box for their assignments. As an apprentice, Landau runs wire via conduit systems, ties in light fixtures and receptacles (outlets); and installs hardware for mounting devices alongside an experienced electrician. Throughout the day she will climb up and down ladders, working amidst a symphony of sawing, grinding, mixing, and scraping.
At 35, Landau is starting over. After five years teaching in Montgomery County Public Schools and overseas, she left to start a family. When the time came to go back, she balked at returning to the classroom.
“[Teaching] was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says Landau, who has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a master’s in education. “You are always grading papers and doing lesson plans in the evenings. I wanted to be able to spend more time with my family, to find a better work-life balance.” Landau’s husband, Carlos, supported her career change, but he remains in teaching.
While thinking about a new career, Landau took a skills aptitude test. It suggested engineering or electrical work. While one path, engineering, would lead directly back to campus, the other led to a blue-collar career. Ultimately, she opted for the shortest route to a paycheck. That’s when she decided to check out Montgomery College’s Gudelsky Institute for Technical Education.
“I had no idea what to expect,” says Landau.
Often the only female in class, Landau sampled courses in electrical wiring, blueprint reading, and heating, ventilation, air-conditioning (HVAC). She approached one instructor, John Phillips, for advice on getting into the workforce. Phillips had noticed her potential and recommended she try for a spot in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the highly selective trade organization.
“The union accepts a small percentage of applicants,” says Phillips. “They challenge them first with an aptitude test that requires college-level algebra skills.”
Landau landed in the union’s five-year apprenticeship program. For her, that meant full-time employment and classroom instruction twice a month at the union hall in Lanham, Maryland. Typically, apprentices are paid 40 percent to 60 percent less than “journeymen,” an industry term for those who have fully served an apprenticeship; but her apprenticeship training, which could easily cost $50,000, is sponsored entirely by her employers.
Career Opportunities: Middle Skills Needed Now
In the recovering economy, the US Department of Labor estimates three million unfilled jobs requiring less than a four-year college degree, with strong demand through 2020. Middle-skills—those needing some training or education after high school but less than a four-year degree—comprise a majority of these opportunities.
In-demand positions include: lab technicians, teachers in early childhood education programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists [source: CNN Money, “Community College Grads Out-Earn Bachelor’s Degree Holders,” Feb. 26, 2013].
In Maryland, 42 percent of all job openings, including 38 percent of the jobs in the state’s bioscience industry, could be filled with qualified workers who have an associate’s degree or less.*
Click here for more examples of middle skills jobs in Maryland.