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Air Force veteran uses apprenticeship to build sheet metal career

Dayton Daily News - 11/17/2022

Nov. 17—Before she started blazing her own trail as a sheet metal apprentice, Santana Austin served in the Air Force, then, outside the service, she worked in IT.

But being chained to a desk as a "computer janitor" was not for her, Austin decided.

"I found I am just not cut out for the office," she said in an interview. "I am more of a builder. I like working with my hands. And I found I really like working with metal."

Austin is a second-year sheet metal apprentice at Sheet Metal Workers Local 24 in Dayton, working for VM Systems, a ductwork contractor helping build a $390 millionRoyal Canin North America plant in Lewisburg.

Industry advocates believe Austin's story exemplifies the opportunities available to apprentices willing to work for them.

The demand is there, especially with new construction across Southwestern Ohio. More than five million square feet of industrial space have been built around Dayton International Airport alone since 2014.

"The amount of work that is stacked up in the Miami Valley is out of control," said Tony Stephens, apprenticeship coordinator at Local 24. "It seems like every week there is another $750 million ... project that gets announced. We are recruiting like mad."

Austin served in the Air Force in cyber-security and also worked as a journalist and photographer while in the service.

"I wanted a different kind of life," she said. "I actually wanted a job where I could see the results of what I'm doing."

Austin and her fellow workers install ductwork at the Royal Canin project, working with pieces varying from small size ductwork to 50-inch round to pieces twice as tall as a human being.

The life is rewarding but exacting. Her day starts early, at about 4:30 a.m. Work starts at 7 a.m. She could be putting duct up, assembling it or sealing it.

Two evenings a week, she also takes classes at the local on Poe Avenue.

"I'm always driving from Dayton to Hillsboro," she said with a laugh. "A long drive, but well worth it."

She has no complaints.

"It's very rewarding," said Stephens, who has 63 apprentices in Dayton. "There is a lot of pride in the building trades."

Across Ohio, there are more than 1,300 apprenticeship opportunities and 230 positions available, according to the Ohio Means Jobs portal.

Nationally, more than 808,000 people work as apprentices in high-demand industries like health care, manufacturing, construction, transportation, energy and other fields, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As an apprentice, Austin makes $18.13 an hour. That wage will surely rise if she continues in the field. And she can look forward to a future of no college debt.

"Hopefully, I'll get to teach some apprentices of my own," she said.

The cost of the training is only a willingness to learn and work. Beyond that, sheet metal apprentices need a high school diploma, a driver's license, reliable transportation and they must be able to pass drug tests.

"Everything else, we will teach you," said Stephens.

His advice to those who think they may be interested: Do some research first. Find videos on You Tube about the work of electricians, plumbers or others in the building trades.

And be willing to show up every day. Of his apprentices who are fired, most are fired simply because they fail to show up to job sites, he said.


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