​​Building New Careers: Santiago Canyon College’s Apprenticeship Programs Feature Story

November 23, 2021
Renee Gadberry

When Renée Gadberry entered the trades, she wasn’t your typical apprentice. In addition to already having a college degree, she also had her teaching credential. Unfortunately, the one thing she didn’t have was a job. Like many adults, Renee needed to find a steady paycheck and a stable career, fast. Fortunately for her, that’s exactly what she found when she entered Santiago Canyon College’s Operating Engineers Training Trust apprenticeship program which prepares students for careers operating, maintaining, inspecting, and repairing heavy construction equipment.

“It was great. I started getting paid, which was awesome,” she says. “It was an intense program, but absolutely worth it.”

One of the many benefits of apprenticeship programs is that students get to “earn while they learn,” and their salaries increase as they gain more experience. In the Operating Engineers program, typical annual pay for the first-year ranges from $16,000 to $40,000, increasing from $40,000 to $81,000 annually after three to four years.

In Orange County, Santiago Canyon College (SCC) has become a leader in apprenticeship programs, offering more than any other community college in the region. In conjunction with various employers and the Division of Apprenticeship Standards, SCC’s extensive list of offerings includes:

Programs are offered as a partnership between local unions, who provide the experts and jobs, and SCC, which is responsible for accrediting the curriculum and instructors. The Operating Engineers Training Trust program is offered in partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 12. Students work at their approved job site Monday through Friday, then attend a training program, which is built around accredited curriculum, at one of six sites on Saturdays.

Gadberry started as an apprentice inspector and during her apprenticeship was dispatched to numerous jobs, including construction on two segments of the Metro Light Rail in Los Angeles. Eventually, she would go on to become a teacher in the program where she works today. Not surprisingly, one of her goals is supporting and encouraging non-traditional tradespeople, and especially women, to apply for the program.

“As long as you’re OK with being dirty and working hard and working with your hands, I think as a woman you can do just as well in this career,” says Gadberry.

Like the Operating Engineers Training Trust, SCC’s extensive carpentry apprenticeships lead to careers in carpentry and a variety of related fields in the construction industry, from acoustical installer to terrazzo finisher.

Louis Ontiveros, executive director of the Southwest Carpenters Training Fund (which works with SCC to offer these apprenticeships), lists three key reasons why someone should consider going into the carpentry field: “Jobs, wages, and benefits.”

Carpentry apprentices earn $17.78 an hour their first year, increasing to $44.44 an hour after a student reaches journeyman status in four years. Ontiveros notes that this can add up to as much as $189,000 in total wages (or $326,000 if you include benefits) over their four years as an apprentice.

“You’re learning your trade,” says Ontiveros. “With all that knowledge, there’s a lot of things you can do with it.”

As if those benefits weren’t enough, apprentices are not charged for their education and training. 

Ontiveros, who worked in construction for 31 years, says the field can be a great career for many.

“It’s hard work. It’s dangerous work. But it can be very fruitful,” he says. “We don’t work in an office. You go from one job to the next and it’s always something new. You work with your hands, and I loved it.”

Like SCC’s carpentry apprenticeships, the Operating Engineers Training Trust program is extremely popular amongst prospective students. Its application period opens about every two years and according to Director of Training Larry Hopkins, it typically receives more than 5,000 applications for a program that has about 700 spots. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this demand grow.

Normally, the program would be opening its applications again in early 2022 but testing of the last round of applicants was slowed because of the pandemic. As of this writing, another round of testing isn’t planned until January 2023, although the program is considering offering open applications.

“The trades aren’t for everybody, but they work for a lot of people,” says Hopkins. “The earn-while-you-learn model is really hard to beat.”