Posted December 19, 2020 by Mark Perna
For this Millennial college graduate, ironworking was the plot twist no one was expecting. Mark’s article, “A Tale Of Two Degrees—And The Happy Ending This Woman Found In The Trades,” published at Forbes.com on December 9, 2020.
If you think the trades are just for men, think again. And if you think college is the only rewarding career pathway, think a third time. Emily Sjostrom, college graduate and now apprentice ironworker, is here to change your mind.
At first glance, Emily might seem like a normal Millennial woman. Petite and reserved, she’s earned two BAs, studied abroad and worked in a coffee shop after graduating. A career in the growing but demanding field of ironworking was never on her radar.
Like most of her generation, Emily’s high school career exploration was almost entirely oriented around the college pathway. “I never considered going into the trades, as my generation was heavily pushed towards getting a college education,” she says.
Emily, whose degrees are in business and theater, originally wanted to be a small business owner and to direct theater. “I had a few paid gigs in theater while also working regular day jobs,” she says. “But I was always short on time and funds.”
The struggle to find work commensurate with a college education is all too common. “At the coffee shop where I was working when I applied for my apprenticeship, almost everyone had a BA, and a couple had advanced degrees,” she recalls.
“Having a degree can be a valuable tool, but it doesn’t set you apart from the crowd the way it used to.”Having a degree can be a valuable tool, but it doesn't set you apart from the crowd the way it used to. Click To Tweet
While it can be a valuable pathway for many, college does require significant time and financial commitments. “These are major drawbacks for me, especially considering that I’m not using either of my degrees and will still be paying them off for years to come,” Emily says.
But despite the downsides, Emily’s college experience overall was a positive one. “I learned to take more risks, push myself and how to fail and come back stronger,” she says. The ability to experience a new culture was another major benefit. “I moved to South Africa to study theater for six months and also traveled to Zambia, Botswana and Namibia while I was there,” she says. “I didn’t know a soul there, no one else from my college was going that semester, I had never traveled on my own before, I had never even been on a plane before. I just went.
“It was a formative time in my life and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; I would never have made such a dramatic change in my life if it wasn’t offered through my school.”
Perhaps that leap of faith prepared Emily for an even bigger change in a few years—when she would set aside her degrees to jump headfirst into the male-dominated field of ironworking.
Working at the coffee shop and scrimping to pay her college loans, Emily knew she wasn’t living up to her full potential. It was time for a major change—but what? How does a double-degreed college graduate launch a different career?
For Emily, it would require a completely new approach. “I just wanted a real career I could enjoy, and to be compensated fairly,” she says. “I thought long and hard about what actually made me happy.”
Happy—that was Emily’s new career litmus test. With that in mind, she doubled down on her search. “I owe my career pivot to web searches on my phone,” she says. “I spent a lot of time researching different trades, what kind of work they did, what the apprenticeship process was like, and what the pay and benefits looked like.”
That’s when ironworking caught Emily’s eye. “It hit many things on my list; it’s very physical, there is a wide variety of work that falls under ironworking, you need creativity and problem solving, you’re usually outside, and it’s a job I can continue to learn and grow into.”
Ironworking looked appealing to Emily. But would she look appealing to the ironworking program?
When Emily applied for the ironworking apprenticeship program at the Local 512 in St. Paul, Minnesota, She didn’t know anyone in any of the trades. She took a chance—and at first, it didn’t pan out.
“When I first applied for my apprenticeship, I did well in my interview, but lacked relatable work experience,” says Emily. “And as a skinny, short woman, I didn’t look like your typical candidate.
“Before exiting my interview, I said, ‘I know this is a hard career and I know it will kick my butt at first, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do it’.”
As it turned out, Emily didn’t make the cut for the first round of hiring. But her chance would come. Ironworking is not for the faint of heart, and two months after the new apprentices started, more than 20 of them had quit. “I received a call asking if I was still interested in the apprenticeship,” Emily recalls. “I jumped on the opportunity.”
As a woman ironworker, Emily is often asked what it’s like to work in such a demanding field alongside the guys. “I never quite know how to answer because women (like everyone else) are individuals,” she says. “We all have different experiences and stories. I can only tell you what it’s been like for me.”
Sexism often can take the form of lowered expectations. “There have been several times where I have been removed from work that required moderately heavy lifting or where guys have jumped in to help even though I wasn’t struggling,” she says. “I’ve even had a bundle of rebar taken right out of my hands before (which I grabbed right back).
“I feel that this is partly due to my body type rather than my sex, as I am a smaller person. However, I feel that I’m very honest about when I do need help, so it is very frustrating when your brothers don’t trust that you have your work under control.”
But in general, Emily says she’s treated as an equal member of the crew. “The guys I work with see that I work hard and want to learn, and that’s what they care about.” Like any other field, ironworking is for women, too.
As Emily’s story demonstrates, it’s never too late to change careers, and every field is open to anyone who is willing to work hard. “Ironworking has long been, and remains, a male-dominated field. That has never dissuaded me from seeing it as a path for myself,” she says. “I think when you find a career that interests and excites you, it’s hard not to envision yourself in that role.”
Emily, now in her third and final year of apprenticeship, recalls what a scary decision it was to switch gears and go into ironworking. “It can be intimidating to make drastic changes, especially if you’ve already committed time and effort to something,” she says. “At the end of the day, you need to remember that life is way too short to stay in a situation that just makes you unhappy.
“It won’t be easy, but you owe it to yourself to find something better.”It won't be easy, but you owe it to yourself to find something better. Click To Tweet