September 3, 2013 Updated: September 4, 2013 at 7:19 am
Twenty-one-year-old Samantha Lambert's life seemed predestined since birth. Every generation, on both sides of her parents' families, has sent someone to the military - since the Spanish-American War of 1898.
"I assumed it was my future, too," she says.
But after finishing high school in 2010 in Colorado Springs, Lambert decided she didn't want to be a soldier. She waitressed for a while but didn't like the work or the pay.
Instead, she chose a profession, which, like the military, requires guts, grit and gusto.
So far, she's making the grade.
Lambert is the only active female sheet metal student at Local Union 9. With one year of school under her belt, she starts welding classes Sept. 9, in the second year of the four-year apprentice program.
"She's a firecracker. She's holding her own very well. It's hard to think of her as a female because she's keeping up with everybody else, and there are the same expectations across the board," says Andy Gilliland, training coordinator for Local Union 9.
One of 200 Joint Apprenticeship and Training Institutes for skilled sheet metal workers in the nation, the local program has been a viable option for not only recent high school graduates, but also those wanting a career change, Gilliland said.
"We've had architects, engineers, master mechanics, who want to do something different," he said.
However, not many women are attracted to the field, and Gilliland said those who are often don't like it.
Not Lambert. She loves it.
"I like the fact that I have a thousand 'brothers' and a bunch of 'dads' now," she said. "The dad figures are cool and protective."
Male students are accepting, she said, once they realize she can "take the jokes and dish it out as much as I receive it."
Lambert is admittedly used to being around men who "cuss, fart, spit, drink beer and work on cars," so she says she fits right in with the "tinners," the slang name for sheet metal tradesmen.
"It's hard, honest work. I'm not made for a woman's world. I like making stuff with my hands," she said.
The program takes an "earn as you learn" philosophy, which has been tough to accommodate in recent years, as the recession left the construction industry resembling a heap of scrap metal. In 2008, the training program had 150 students; there are now 45, Gilliland said.
"It would be difficult to have them come to school and not work in the trade," he said.
Students need 7,200 hours of on-the-job training; Lambert is nearing 1,000.
Much of a sheet metal worker's day is spent 8 to 12 feet or more above the ground, installing duct work on construction sites. Earlier this year, Lambert was on a crew building Children's Hospital Colorado's south campus in Highlands Ranch.
"At first, I was running errands, grabbing tools, helping the journeymen. My first boss was a hard-core grouch. My second was a nice, straight-up teacher/preacher," she said. "I like being trusted to do things on my own."
Basic math skills are necessary for the job, and there's plenty of in-classroom teaching. Students also learn welding, drafting, blueprint reading and other skills that translate into various roles. Along with metal fabricating, drafting and system testing, graduates can create decorative metal pieces, service heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, or work their way up to being a project manager or business owner.
Like other skilled construction, the work can be dangerous, but it pays well. First-year apprentices can earn nearly $26 an hour in wages and benefits, according to the school. Graduates who reach the journeyman level fetch nearly $46 an hour in wages and benefits.
The training program is free to students, who must pass an entrance exam and do well during an interview. While they are not obligated to finish the classes or continue working in the field, Gilliland said there is an expectation that they will do both.
Safety is a big consideration today, Gilliland said. A certain number of deaths - usually four or six - used to be built into proposals for large-scale construction projects, such as Denver International Airport. That's not the case now.
"Deaths or accidents are not acceptable anymore," he said. "It's a different culture."
"It is a dangerous profession," Lambert acknowledges.
She doesn't see that as a drawback, though. There are definitely parts she doesn't like - tucking her long hair under a hard hat to prevent it from getting gunk in it, working outside when it's freezing and having to use a 12-foot ladder instead of an 8-foot one because she's so short (5 foot-2).
But the advantages have outweighed the disadvantages.
"It's like a family to me," Lambert said. "I'm like everybody's sister, and it's really cool."