We talked to journeyman ironworker and motivational speaker Jamie McMillan about what led her to start a career in the skilled trades and why she thinks more women should do the same.
What inspired you to dive into the skilled trades industry?
It wasn’t my first career choice. In fact, I wasn’t even made aware that skilled trades were a career option until my mid-20s. After high school, I went on a convoluted journey trying to find myself. I made some poor life choices. I knew I needed to find a career, but the idea of academia seemed paralyzing. Comparing my life to others became increasingly embarrassing as I got older, causing anxiety and depression.
One day while walking to a nearby grocery store, a chance meeting with a former classmate sparked a conversation about her career path. She had completed an “earn-while-you-learn” apprenticeship and become a fully certified skilled trades professional at no cost to her. I immediately began to do my research.
I became hyper-focused on the idea of paid training and applied for an apprenticeship to become an ironworker. To my delight, I received a letter not long after addressed to Mr. Jamie McMillan (lol) approving my apprenticeship and beginning my journey as an apprentice to become an ironworker in 2002. After 20+ years, I can proudly say with confidence that skilled trades saved my life and open doors to opportunities I never dreamed of. I am now a proud member of the Local 97 Ironworkers.
How has your experience been working as a woman in skilled trades?
Despite various obstacles, women in trades have unique advantages and opportunities in building and construction careers. Personally, I have found it to be an engaging, rewarding career. I have dealt with my fair share of challenges and difficult personalities, but over the years have become increasingly resilient. Rather than allowing negativity to discourage me, I decided long ago that the process of changing bad behaviors in the workplace is a work in progress. However, in the meantime, I can change the way I think about it.
By shifting my mindset, I have been able to stop taking things personally, smile in the face of adversity, and prove myself. By using negative energy as my motivational drive to succeed, I have turned some of the most difficult naysayers into my biggest supporters. It has made me a stronger, better person in the workplace and my personal life.
What are some of the best benefits of working in the skilled trades?
I could talk all day about the benefits, but here are just a few of the top ones:
Skilled trades are essential. As long as human life exists on this planet, we need people to build and maintain the infrastructure all around us. From the deepest mine to the furthest space station, there is no end to the career possibilities and opportunities for advancement, not just locally but globally.
Whether you start your journey through a technical institute or choose an “earn-while-you-learn” apprentice, the trades equip you with practical knowledge and transferable skills that can be used in so many aspects of life. The wages are excellent, building infrastructure is empowering, and the satisfaction of having something to show for your hard work gives skilled trades professionals bragging rights.
We literally build and maintain the structures that decorate our landscape. We drive around with friends and family just to proudly say, “See that structure or bridge or building that employs thousands of people? Yeah man, I helped build it! It’s an unbeatable feeling to know that skilled workers are the backbone of physical infrastructure all around the world, and we get to celebrate being a small part of it.
Were there any misconceptions you had about diving into this field that you found to be untrue?
I was a little naïve about some things in the very beginning, but quickly realized that some of my assumptions about the labor workforce were inaccurate. Growing up, pursuing a career in construction was discouraged while academia was encouraged. The biggest misconception was that it was a dirty, backbreaking job for those who struggled in school or dropped out. The truth is that construction careers are represented by some of the most creative, intelligent, hardworking individuals I’ve ever met. Regardless of how we identify, we are crafty, mechanical-minded individuals that prefer to work with our hands rather than occupying an office desk. As many ironworkers and other skilled workers say, “We don’t go to the office, we build it!”
What advice do you have for those looking to start a career in the trades?
Do it! If you’re looking for a fun and challenging, yet rewarding, career, skilled trades is an excellent pathway with excellent wages — complete with nice retirement packages and endless opportunities for advancement. However, if you plan to enter the labor workforce, please be part of the positive change we need to see in the industry.
Recognize that we still have challenges and barriers in our quest to become an industry that is 100% diverse, equitable, and inclusive, but you can be part of the change. Have a good attitude, represent the industry with dignity and respect, develop healthy boundaries, and leave your hard feelings at the gate.
Teamwork is important, even when you’re stuck with antagonistic coworkers. Don’t tolerate bad behavior and never be ashamed to stand up for yourself or coworkers who may be having a difficult time. Take every opportunity to advance into leadership roles and never forget where you came from.