Stephan, 26, was born and raised in Florida. He graduated from the seven-month Electrical Applications (Electrician Training) program at the Tulsa Welding School, Jacksonville campus, in March 2018.
Thanks for your time, Stephan. What did you do after high school?
I actually finished my last year of high school in Puerto Rico. I was living with my aunt and uncle over there at the time. After high school, I went to college over there for a computer engineering program. I was told that it was bilingual, but it actually wasn’t! It was all in Spanish. While I can kind of understand it, I can’t speak Spanish very well. It was extremely difficult trying to learn physics and calculus in a different language.
So you left college?
Yes, I left and started working in Puerto Rico, doing warehouse and pest control jobs, which were horrible. I realized I needed to get some kind of profession.
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I started looking online and found a couple of programs. I saw Tulsa Welding School had the Electrical Applications program. It was short—only seven months. It gave me what I needed, and it aligned with my schedule. So I moved to Jacksonville to go to school in August last year, then Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September.
Did you have a prior interest in the electrical field?
Yes, I did. I had an uncle who was an electrician, and I noticed he made really good money and was pretty happy with it. That’s why I thought I should look into it. I’d helped my uncle fix cars, and I helped my grandfather fix the electrical applications in my mom’s house, and I had also messed with computer board soldering. I’d messed with electricity quite a lot, so I wasn’t completely green on day one. I didn’t know the NEC—the National Electrical Code that electricians have to work by—or the lingo, but I knew how to work with it and how to ground it. I knew which wire is safe which is not, and so on.
Did that give you an advantage in class?
Actually, I think I was the greenest in my class. Most of them were from the military. Some had worked as electricians, and they knew all the lingo. I was completely lost half the time at the beginning when they were explaining things. But as I studied, as I got good grades and read the books, I started making my way up, got faster and learned a lot.
What was your favorite part about the program?
The instructors, especially the lead electrical instructor Robert Padgett—and John Koelling. I enjoyed talking to them, hearing their stories about life in the field, how they messed with it, what to watch out for. They helped me when I was trying to find a job—what to look for, what not to look for. They were excellent instructors.
Where are you working?
I’m working with American Lighting and Signalization in Jacksonville. It’s repairing and putting up traffic lights, signal lights, signs, all of that stuff all over Florida. You’d be surprised how much electrical wire I have to pull. I haven’t done the wiring of the poles yet because I’m still new, so I’ve mostly been working on trenches and putting up poles, but there is a lot of electrical work involved in it.
How did you get the job?
Through Career Services. They gave me a lead because they knew they were hiring, so I called and we talked. I liked the sound of how they did things, so I decided to apply.
When did you start?
I started at the beginning of May.
So you had a month between graduating and starting work?
Only because I had some problems with my background check. The situation in Puerto Rico made the background check take forever, which was frustrating.
You’ve been there three weeks. Is the potential for growth good?
The growth is what I really care about, because at the moment, there are a lot of people with a bigger paycheck than mine. The journeymen have the highest paychecks of all of them, so that’s something to look forward to. The improved paycheck comes with experience.
What’s your career plan from here?
I’ll go where the money takes me. I’m young, I don’t have a house or roots, so I can go anywhere. I’d like to stay with this company if they pay me well. If I become a journeyman here, I’ll probably be specialized with traffic lighting. But as a journeyman, I could still branch out to do housing and stuff like that. I’d just have to learn how they do things, as it will be different from street lighting.
Explain what a journeyman is to those who don’t know.
Journeyman is basically a certification saying I’ve spent at least four years in trade duty working with electricity, and I’ve done these tests and passed all the safety evaluations saying I’m totally responsible for what happens. It’s like a four-year apprenticeship program, at the end of which you can work independently. [Becoming a journeyman electrician is the first step to earning the distinction of a master electrician.]
Would you like to own your own business one day?
Most master electricians own their own businesses, but I don’t really see myself doing that. I don’t want to deal with a mountain of paperwork. The idea of sitting behind a desk for too long does not feel good! I can’t see myself doing that. I’d rather be out on the road doing stuff.
The instructors at Tulsa made an impression on you. Would you ever consider teaching?
Maybe toward the end of my career. I know instructors don’t make much money. Like all teaching professions lately, there’s not that much money in it. But if I’m retired and getting a check, I wouldn’t mind teaching the next generation.
What do you enjoy most about your new trade?
What I really like is that it’s not really that hard. You just have to know all the rules. There aren’t that many electricians around the country, so electricians are in high demand.
What advice would you give to new students considering an electrical program at TWS?
Expect to do a lot of hard work. Study up and get good grades, because employers really look at that. Yes, you’ll have an advantage over someone who didn’t go to school, but don’t leave here thinking you know everything because there’s going to be a lot of stuff you don’t know. Studying in a controlled environment like Tulsa Welding School and field work are completely different.
If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston).