Rubin: Debt-free and hard-wired for a future

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Tanaya Parker of Redford has a friend with two master’s degrees, $125,000 in college debt and a job in social services that pays $18 an hour.

The job is fulfilling, Parker says. Valuable, too. But still: $125,000.

Instructor Jennifer Smith keeps her class lively at the Electrical Industry Training Center in Warren. As Baby Boomers leave the ranks, some well-paying trades are wary of possible worker shortages.

Contrast that to Parker’s situation. Halfway through a five-year apprenticeship, she’s making just about what her friend is.

She’ll finish as a journeyman electrician with no debt, having paid $100 per quarter for an otherwise free education that was hands-on from day one with an estimated value of $225,000 in pay and benefits.

That’s not to say college is a waste of time or money. Ideally, it’s neither. But it’s not the only yellow brick road to success — as they can also tell you at

Bernie Sanders campaigned on a promise of free tuition to public universities, and Hillary Clinton has endorsed the notion for in-state students with family incomes less than $125,000.

If the message is that college has become too expensive ... Well, yeah. But if the inference is that the options are degree or doomed, Jennifer Mefford would disagree.

She’s the director of business development for a joint program of IBEW Local 58 — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — and the National Electrical Contractors Association, or NECA.

Together, they have funded the Electrical Industry Training Center for more than a century. The EITC campus in Warren is where Parker had come for one of her two days a month of classroom instruction, and where Mefford was leading a tour of the future.

Some people’s future, at least. Not everybody’s, but then, neither is college.

It’s what math is for

The fact is, Mefford says, baby boomers are aging out of the building trades faster than unions can train their replacements.

A coalition called Management & Unions Serving Together operates a website at that represents more than 20 trades and one recurring theme: apprentices wanted.

They are difficult apprenticeships to get and to complete. Numbers-wise, it’s far easier to enroll in college. Also numbers-wise, remember asking your high school algebra teacher when you would ever need his stupid subject in real life?

Welcome to the IBEW — if you can qualify.

“People are surprised there’s so much math,” says EITC instructor Jennifer Smith, 39, of Linden.

She was working at a bank and going to college part time when it struck her that her job was dull and it would take her eight years to graduate. She became an electrician and then a teacher, able to explain how the bend in a conduit is exactly the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

Math and reading comprehension are vital enough that there’s a sample test on the IBEW website. About 400 people apply each month, 90 to 120 are officially tested, and a considerably smaller number earn interviews.

Only 175 apprentices were hired last year, with about the same number expected in 2016.

More math: That’s not enough to replace the 40 percent of Local 58’s 4,700 members closing in on retirement. But the blessing and the curse of getting paid to learn is that the IBEW can only accept apprentices if it has jobs for them.

Apprentice Percy Redd, 40, of Detroit attends a blueprint class at the Electrical Industry Training Center. Most days, he’s on a job site.

Fighting stereotypes

Ordinary journeymen average $65,000 a year, Mefford says. Certain specialists can double that.

Wending her way to those levels, Parker has spent much of the last year working in hospitals, where the reception is not always friendly.

“Some of the doctors and nurses look down on us,” she says, or bark at them for disturbing a pristine environment. “We’re looked at as those dirty guys.”

But they’re debt-free dirty guys, and the professionals with their student loans aren’t seeing the whole picture.

“They don’t think about what’s behind the walls in that nice office,” says Percy Redd, 40, a fellow student from Detroit.

Like Parker, Redd is in the five-year inside construction program, as opposed to the three-year telecommunications track.

“Everything starts from dirt,” he says.

Then the skilled tradesmen show up, and turn it into a place where you can put a diploma on a shelf.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn