Workers opt for a trade Change: Dissatisfied with their career choices, a growing number of professionals are returning to school to acquire technical skills that are in high demand.

June 29, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

For eight years, Randolph Kendall, 41, worked behind a desk and on the street as a city planner. Then he left the reports, the filing cabinets and the professional life for the blueprints and metal of a machinist.

In this upwardly mobile society, the move from white- to blue-collar job might appear to be a step down. But Kendall -- part of a small but significant stream of workers trading desk jobs for skilled trades -- is likely to earn up to $60,000 a year in his new career.

And the satisfaction of creating and crafting products is worthwhile in itself, said the Gwynn Oak resident, who now works at Kaydon Ring & Seal Inc. in Baltimore.

"You know," he said, "if I need a hammer, I can make a hammer. If I need a screw, I can make a screw."

Throughout Maryland, workers such as Kendall -- middle-age, with a good amount of time invested in one career -- are taking advantage of the high demand for skilled workers in technical fields such as manufacturing and repair.

They learn their new trades in dozens of private and public technical programs statewide, including Catonsville Community College's Machinist Training Program, where Kendall studies the finer points of operating and programming metalworking machines.

While their numbers are small, these workers represent a growing "trickle" into the job pool, said Anirban Basu, a senior economist at RESI, a research institute at Towson University.

Until several years ago, he said, it wasn't happening at all. "This is really a very recent phenomenon," he said.

The movement is fueled in part by the dynamics of a tight labor market, in which many companies say they have a hard time recruiting workers for manufacturing and skilled trades.

Though an exact figure is elusive, Basu said there are probably 1,000 to 2,000 skilled trade jobs open statewide -- from electrical work and plumbing to machining.

"Slowly, people are realizing, 'My goodness, this is quite an opportunity for me,' " he said.

But for many workers, the decision to change careers is prompted by more than money.

Mark Chapman, 37, was making $45,000 a year as an area supervisor for Papa John's Pizza. But he was tired of the 70-hour work weeks -- and of standing by as the inquisitive part of his nature withered.

"I stopped a long time ago asking, 'Why does that happen?' " said the Chase resident.

So, after 18 years in the restaurant business, he decided to start over. Now in his second semester at the Baltimore campus of TESST Technology Institute, Chapman is learning about circuits, voltage and how things work.

By the end of the 18-month, six-semester program, Chapman -- who has a $12-an-hour job offer as an electronics technician -- will know how to diagnose and fix problems in computers, telephones and just about anything else electrical.

"You feel kind of reborn," said Chapman, who had hoped to be an engineer before family responsibilities forced him to jettison college after two years. "I'm four times happier."

The same goes for fellow student Jasper Stanford, a 28-year-old Cockeysville resident, who worked in car sales for six years, three as a dealership manager, but was sick of what he saw as the superficiality of the business.

Now, technology is his life. Electrical terms such as "resistance" and "tolerance" work their way into the conversation when he talks about managing everyday problems.

Still, the transition from professional career to skilled trade can be rough.

At the Machinist Training Program in Catonsville, some current students struggled with the trigonometry necessary for the job: Before they could switch on a machine and make the first cuts in their metal, they had to compute angles and hypotenuse lengths.

Former city planner Kendall, who attends classes some afternoons before work and was a full-time student until he landed his job, went home tired.

Student Wendy Smero, 36, said her husband "wasn't really thrilled" about her new career, which came on the heels of 14 years of running a bridal shop. "It was something so completely in the opposite direction of what I did before," she said.

But with time, students thrive. "It just takes practice," said Jim Garvey, 45, who managed a Kenny Rogers Roasters in Pikesville before it closed this year and who was looking for a stable career to last him into retirement. "You learn to get a feel for it."

One recent morning in the Catonsville training program's garage-like classroom, Garvey stepped up to an engine lathe to finish crafting the head of a ball-peen hammer.

Setting the speed of the lathe spindle and throwing the red "on" switch, the Woodlawn resident -- working with thousandth-of-an-inch precision -- made cuts in the metal as it rotated in the machine.

Across the room, Smero put a smooth edge on the cylindrical piece of lathe equipment she was manufacturing. "It's really different," she said. "When you're 36 and starting over, it's a little weird."

But she doesn't regret her choice, calling it "a really nice change" from retail.

"Sometimes," said the Rosedale resident, "you get tired of dealing with the public."

For more information about skilled trade training programs, call the Baltimore County Office of Employment and Training, 410-887-HIRE.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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