MANSFIELD ─ Alex Culler said he's had a lot of opportunities since becoming an electrician, even in the middle of a pandemic.
In the past three years, he traveled to nine states in a conversion van -- for work. Recently, the Bellville man who now lives in Mansfield started a new job with ESI Electrical Contractors, working at a Facebook data center in New Albany.
Without the five-year training from an apprenticeship program, Culler would not be able to travel around the country and earn money.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Richland County has been steadily improving since April, when the rate hit a record high at 20.3 percent. While the number went down to 7.8 percent in September, it was higher than that of pre-pandemic time, mostly ranging from 4 to 6 percent.
With the economy still recovering, Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted highlighted the state apprenticeship program in a press conference last month to help people transition to a new career.
He said Ohio is ranked the fourth in the country for the number of apprenticeships and has almost 20,000 apprentices on average.
“The apprentices in Ohio earned as much as $70,000 a year," Husted said. "The great thing about an apprenticeship is that you can learn and earn at the same time, while you’re in the process of acquiring your certification."
Since the first day of a job, an apprentice is a company’s full-time employee.
Culler said as an apprentice, his hourly rate started as 40 to 45 percent of what a journeyman makes. It rose throughout the years when he met the requirement for working hours and class performance.
In his senior year in high school, Culler did not know what he wanted to do for the future. He considered joining the Navy or the Air Force until his father recommended he sign up for the electrician apprenticeship.
He joined the program through the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, now called the Electrical Training Alliance. He has been working as an inside wireman, installing and maintaining the electrical systems in all kinds of places. He said the program requires 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 180 hours of class training each year.
In his first year, he was handing tools to the journeyman and learning by watching most of the time. It seems easy. But Culler said the goal is to anticipate a journeyman’s next move and “make it easier for him.”
Over the five years of training, Culler said he worked at various industrial and commercial facilities, including a water treatment plant in Bucyrus. The longest duration of a task was at Knox Community Hospital. The hospital had a huge renovation that took him 11 months to finish the project.
“There were a lot of different kinds of tasks I could do at the hospital. It was a good place to learn,” he said.
Starting with almost zero knowledge in electrical maintenance, Culler said he had no clue what he was doing at first. The training was challenging from time to time. He once failed a test in class that delayed a pay raise.
Luckily, the journeymen and experienced workers were willing to pass on their knowledge. Their support helped Culler relieve the anxiety and made him belong to the trade.
The apprenticeship was “100 percent” worth it, Culler said. Since finishing the program in June 2017, he left Ohio to see other parts of the country while working. He has been to the Bay Area of California, Las Vegas and Oregon.
He enjoys traveling for work and meeting a lot of new people.
“I'm pretty lucky because since I've topped out, and even right now, I can almost like throw a dart at a map and there's work. I'm blessed,” Culler said.
He also said there are a lot of opportunities for electricians all over the country. They have been able to work through the pandemic because they are essential workers. For someone thinking about a career change, Culler said the apprenticeship program is worth trying.
“I would recommend it for anyone that likes working with their hands. That was one thing that appealed to me. I like working outside and didn't mind manual labor,” he said.
With high industrial preference in north central Ohio, electrical maintenance, industrial maintenance and tool and die have been the most popular apprenticeship programs, said Linda Hess, director of workforce development for North Central State College.
She stressed the programs have various focuses, including information technology and healthcare. NCSC is working with 19 companies to train 120 apprentices who are predominantly young males.
Hess said there is a large group at the age of 19 to 24 and an almost equal-sized group of 25 to 40 year olds.
“I would say there’s a great number of apprentices we are currently teaching very specific skills and knowledge have never been to college before,” she said.
Most apprenticeships are composed of four-year training and schooling. Hess said it's rigorous but very rewarding, especially with the guaranteed pay increase. It is a great way to learn new skills and build one’s career.
Once completing the program, an apprentice will receive a certificate that is recognized nationally. Hess encouraged people who are thinking about a career change to give it a try.
“It would absolutely be an occupational option for someone that is unemployed or underemployed,” she said.
For anyone interested in signing up for an apprenticeship, Hess suggested them to check the website Ohio MEANS Jobs to see the opportunities and connect with the companies.
More information can also be found at https://apprentice.ohio.gov/.