Carpentry apprenticeship gives apprentice fulfilling career and solidarity with other union members

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Lee Carter lived a peripatetic life. From food service, to the FBI, to fighting infectious disease, he tried a bit of everything. Nothing stuck, and he resigned himself to a life of boredom behind a desk, until a chance meeting at a Habitat for Humanity build changed the course of his life. Now a fifth-term carpenter apprentice at GLY Construction in Bellevue, Washington, Carter relishes his vocation. He is an enthusiastic advocate for apprenticeships; having seen what GLY and the union have to offer, he knows he has finally found the right career.

Carter was born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating high school, he started a career in food service. Over three years, he went from busser to server, then to trainer, and finally to the back of the house. His goal was simply to move up the pay scale; he succeeded, but felt unfulfilled. So, he quit his job, took the obvious next step, and joined the FBI. There, he enjoyed his work conducting background checks, but did not savor the thought of sitting behind a desk for the rest of his career. He moved on again, this time enrolling at Penn State to study immunology and infectious disease. He loved the classwork, but an internship gave him a glimpse of his future life as a scientist. Again, he did not enjoy the countless hours behind a lab table, working with pipettes.

Discouraged, Carter headed to the west coast for a vacation. He planned visit his sister in Seattle and take time to consider his next career move. But before long, a familiar boredom set in, and he started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity to pass the time. He had worked on Habitat homes in Philadelphia, and he liked the physical labor and the camaraderie of the work. During downtime on the Seattle builds, he fabricated coffee tables from leftover pallets, similar to one he’d seen for sale in a high-end listing. His natural aptitude for carpentry impressed another volunteer, who suggested he research an apprenticeship.

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Washington offers robust support for apprenticeship programs, and opportunities abound, starting with programs aimed at high school students. But other states do little to promote the trades, and job seekers are often left with a dated understanding of the careers available. Carter admits that the years he spent in Pennsylvania left him with a prejudice against construction work: “They always told me, if you go into construction, you are a failure; there is no opportunity for advancement, and the pay is terrible. Plus, I thought you had to be a big, burly guy to work on a job, and that is not me.” Fortunately, Carter’s acquaintance at Habitat for Humanity laughed and told him his beliefs were wrong. Intrigued, he looked online, and found himself impressed by the programs available.

It still took Carter two years to apply with the union, but just two days after signing up, he was working as a carpenter apprentice. GLY took him on and let him learn on the job. It was then he was sure he’d made a sustainable choice. The long hours and fast-paced environment of the construction lot were exactly what he had been seeking. “Every day is different, and the chances to learn are almost unlimited. There's always a big push to get the job done, to stay on schedule and avoid mistakes. Once I got in, I hit the ground running. I am never bored, and I’ll never regret becoming an apprentice.”

Union membership impacts the job environment at GLY, and camaraderie is the norm. Carter explains that work gets done properly and thoroughly because close relationships develop on the job-site. “You start out working closely with everyone because the safety practices require constant communication and collaboration. But, before long, you discuss family life and personal matters, and soon you are closer to your coworkers than you have ever been with any other colleague. I know my coworkers on a much closer level than I've ever gotten to know anyone at any of my former jobs. There's almost a family feel to the job. The mentality is: union strong, solidarity, and help your labor brother and sisters.”

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But for Carter, it’s much more than union solidarity. GLY has a long-term commitment to innovation in safety practices, and the protocols have had a positive impact on the job site. Safety is not only something to discuss in a classroom, but a team effort, a priority, and even a career track. Carter names this safety culture as one of the best parts of his job and believes it has helped him to bond with his coworkers. “When you're on a job site, there are moving parts, hazards all around you, and constant danger if you aren’t vigilant. You're not only looking out for yourself; it's your responsibility to watch out for the person next to you. And at the same time, you have to trust they are looking out for your safety with just as much care. Learning to rely on the team that much, putting your lives in their hands, creates a powerful connection.”

Beyond life on the job at GLY, Carter enjoys the connections he has made through his apprenticeship program. As he has gone from first- to fifth-term, he has bonded with apprentices from a variety of trades. They get together, support and mentor one another, and work as a team to learn techniques and share opportunities. “You're all growing within this industry. There’s such a camaraderie, on-site and off. It becomes a second family, brothers and sisters you know will watch out for you. And it's not just carpentry; I’ve been able to connect with apprentices from all the trades.”

An apprenticeship can lead to almost limitless opportunity, and Carter looks forward to a leadership or foreman position someday. Already, he takes immense pride in his work; as he watches projects develop from the ground up, and sees his cranes at the top of new structures, he feels a sense of accomplishment. “I look forward to the responsibility of a supervisory role, of being in charge of a whole project. I want to continue to encourage others to take the same pride in their work I do, and to enjoy the satisfaction that only comes with getting a quality job done.”

Carter encourages anyone interested in an apprenticeship to go for it. “Don't be afraid. The old mentality is no longer there; it's a very welcoming environment. You don’t have to be a tough, burly man to be a construction worker. It's for everyone. There's not a single person who can't do this. If you have the drive to do it, the opportunity's there, and the sky's the limit. So go for it. Don't be afraid. Don't think of the preconceived ideas of what construction workers are in the media. If you want to do it, you can do it. You just got to have that drive to do it. Don't be afraid to take that leap of faith.”

Megan Quint