How to Break into the Trades

Electrician performing maintenance in a tunnel.

Landing your first job in the trade industries doesn't have to be as painful as stepping on nails -- if you go about it the right way. Here are some tips to help you start building your career.

Lay the Groundwork

"Job seekers who are looking to break into the trades should approach their job search as any other professional would," said Siobhan Kelly, a job coordinator for the Camden County Technical Schools in Camden County, N.J. "Start by preparing a portfolio that showcases the trade or skill you are marketing. Include pictures, CAD [computer-aided design] sketches and small samples of your work where appropriate."

Kelly also notes that a well-written resume should be part of the package.

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"If you are looking to break into the construction industry, trade schools are great," said Dan Ross, senior recruiter for Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based Toll Brothers Inc. "We like to see that someone has received a formal education in the trades. It shows initiative."

Ross says it's helpful to find a trade school that offers an internship program so you graduate from school with hands-on experience.

"Many of the trades require certification," said David Bird, career program specialist for Chicopee, Mass.-based Porter and Chester Institute. "You need the education in order to pass the exams that are required for certification. Employers are also looking for people they don't have to train. They want employees who can hit the ground running."

Moreover, internships and externships may turn into full-time work.


In addition to pursuing an education, getting to know people in the field is essential. Bill Keavany, project manager for Pearson Systems Inc. in Springfield, Mass., observes that job seekers often find jobs in this industry by networking. Kelly advises job seekers to get involved with local trade associations.

"Belonging to one good one that you participate in is better than joining 12 associations that you rarely attend," Kelly said.

References Count

"When we hire personnel, we talk to their references," Keavany said. As part of the reference-checking process, potential employers will call a candidate's trade school. Interviewers ask first about students' attendance.

"Employers are looking for people with strong work ethics," Bird said. "These include people who show up and are on time."

Kelly says that being prepared with your reference list will impress potential employers, who will appreciate your professional approach to obtaining a job in the field.

Union Jobs

Keavany also reminds job seekers that union shops require union apprenticeships, suggesting that you should "contact your local union and try to get into their apprenticeship program." Pearson says that "unions generally have relationships with contractors and may be able to refer union members to their first jobs."

Company Training Programs

A number of national companies groom their own personnel for construction manager positions. For example, Toll Brothers has training programs for assistant project managers and assistant construction managers. Non-degreed individuals with basic repair skills are encouraged to apply.

"The company looks for character over confidence," Ross said. "We look for someone who shows up every day, wants to learn, is able to interact well with customers, and is polite and customer-oriented."

Flexibility Matters

Demand for employees in the trades is directly related to the economy. Be prepared to go where the jobs are. When it comes to salary, Bird reminds candidates to be flexible.

"Don't make salary demands until you have experience under your belt," he said. "Be willing to work the off-shifts. You might catch a break."

Also, be ready to take the time to develop your job searching tools fully. They will become just as essential as the others on your belt.

Related: For the latest veteran jobs postings around the country, visit the Job Search section.

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