Making It Work
These young Delawareans found a satisfying career start in the trades.
Angel Murray studied sheet metal at Delcastle Technical High School, graduating in 2015. Now she’s a second-year apprentice at M. Davis &Sons. The years between, she worked in fast food.
“I didn’t do the trade right away after high school,” Murray says. “I was working at Arby’s and honestly, that’s not a career. I did enjoy doing sheet metal when I was in high school, but because of how disapproving my father was, it kind of put me off, and I tried to find something else to do, but I couldn’t afford college.”
Not long after deciding to make a change, Murray ran into her old shop teacher at an alumni event. “He helped me meet someone at M. Davis, who got me an interview,” Murray says, “and now I work here and it’s pretty great.”
When we spoke, Murray, 24, was working in the field installing duct work at DuPont Experimental Station. On the job site, among the work crews, and at the corporate level, she says M. Davis is actively supportive of its female workers. “I thought it’d be more challenging working in a mainly male-dominated field,” Murray notes, “but it’s been great — nobody looks down on me for being a woman or anything, and I just kind of do my job. I think it mainly has to do with the company I’m with. They’re very woman-oriented and woman-empowering.”
For Murray, that dynamic was a long time coming. Even though she had a keen sense, from early in high school, what sort of work she wanted to do, she did not have support from her father, and that shaped her career path, at least for a time.
“When I got accepted into sheet metal, he threatened to send me to Glasgow High School instead, after I was already at Delcastle for a year,” Murray says. “And mind you, it’s not that he looks down on blue collar people, because my brother is a mechanic. It was because I was a woman that he looked down on it. But I proceeded to do my three years of sheet metal at Delcastle, and probably because of him, I didn’t go out my senior year or further look into getting into sheet metal. As a teenager, not having your parent’s approval just didn’t feel right. Then, my dad passed [away] a couple of months after I graduated and I just stayed working at Arby’s, and eventually, that got old. I just finally realized that I really wanted to get back into it, and there was nothing stopping me anymore.”
Now, with a year and a half of the apprenticeship under her belt, and having established herself in the job, Murray is looking to branch out —eventually. She’s learning to weld, and has an eye on HVAC and plumbing, too. Overall, taking the leap to pursue her trade has paid off. “It’s a lot less stress on the mind, that’s for sure,” she says. “And also, there’s just a certain confidence in doing what I do and being happy about it.”
Isaiah Matthews graduated from Hodgson Vo-Tech in 2019 and went to work as an apprentice plumber for Sobieski Services. Then COVID hit, and he got laid off.
“So, I had to look for another company to work for, and BouldenBrothers hired me on as a plumber, but their plumbing positions were actually full, so they offered to teach me HVAC,” Matthews explains. “Switching overtrades has been a bit of a thing, but I actually took to it pretty fast, so now Ido HVAC work.”
Matthews, 20, is upbeat about the transition. In fact, it’s not the first time he’s shifted gears — early on, he wanted to go in a different direction. “Originally, I was a big video game head, in middle school, so I wanted to do software coding,” he says. Today, Matthews still plays Call of Duty online, and he enjoys watching competitions, where the top winners can garner cash prizes in the millions. At one point, he even had dreams of competing himself, though he has since realized that the fast-twitch intensity of professional video gameplaying is not his forte.
“When I tried plumbing,” Matthews says, “I realized that I was really good mechanical-wise, so after a while, I just came to the decision, and I stuck with it, and here I am now.” His current plan, heading into the third year of his apprenticeship late this summer, is to finish getting his journeyman’s license in plumbing and, possibly, then go on to get his journeyman’s in HVAC.
“I’m learning a lot with what I’m doing,” Matthews says, noting that dealing with condensers, furnaces, coils as well as learning the indoor and outdoor parameters for the equipment has been a rewarding challenge. He particularly enjoys the troubleshooting and diagnostics that come along with the HVAC repair work. “HVAC is a lot more technical than plumbing. Plumbing is kind of, you get straight to it with the piping, but HVAC has lot more electrical and technical elements, as far as troubleshooting and diagnosing the problem. But I like it a lot. It’s taught me how to use my brain a lot more.”
On a day-to-day basis, Matthews is out in the field working for Boulden Brothers (which is based in Newark), often serving residential customers. He rotates among three senior HVAC technicians, riding with each one in the truck for a week at a stretch. Learning their different personalities, he notes, has been an important part of his overall training. “I kind of have had to learn to blend well with all of them.” And, Matthews says, he’s also picked up customer service skills, especially when working in people’s homes. “You’re in their personal space, so as long as you’re there,” he says, “you play by their rules.”
Jose Jaquez’ first job in the field, working as an apprentice bricklayer, was helping to build the new Odessa High School in Middletown. “That was the biggest job I’ve been on. That was close to nine months,” says Jaquez, noting that he liked knowing where the job site was going to be for such an extended time. As he helped build the school, he got experience working with brick, concrete block, and stone veneers.
A 2019 graduate of Hodgson Vo-Tech, Jaquez originally thought he’d go into a different line of work. “I went for autobody, but when I actually tried out the shop, I just didn’t really like it,” he says. “When I had masonry, the teacher was really cool and I just liked the type of work.”
Now Jaquez is heading into year three of an apprenticeship with the New Castle-based Joseph Rizzo & Sons. In addition to the full-time job, on Monday and Wednesday evenings, he heads over to the shop at St. George’s Technical High School to continue working on small projects to practice his trade (it’s kind of like having shop all over again, he jokes). The classes are run through the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District Adult Education Division. At the end of another year, Jaquez, 20, will be a journeyman mason. Asked what he likes most about the job, he replies: “It’s hard work, but I guess I would say the money.”
For Jaquez, construction is a family rade, though he is quick to point out that he is blazing a new trail with masonry. “My whole family — uncles, cousins — they all do construction, but they all do concrete work, so I’m the only odd one that actually lays block and brick.” Soon he’ll have some company: Jose’s brother, Noe, just graduated high school with a focus in masonry, and the pair are looking forward to working together.
Looking a little farther down the road, Jaquez has plans to strike out on his own. “I am just working and trying to get as much experience as I can, so maybe one day in the future I can have my own business,” he says, noting that he expects to start small, with his brother and maybe a small crew of laborers. “And I guess if it’s going good, grow a little bit.”
For now, Jaquez is taking the opportunity to learn his trade from the experienced crafts people around him. “For the most part, everyone’s really cool and helpful. They help you when you have questions, but every now and then you just get that cranky old bricklayer,” Jaquez jokes, adding: “But it’s those old timers that really know basically everything, and they can teach you.”
And having been at it long enough now himself, Jaquez likes to see the finished projects that he worked on. “It’s cool to see, once everything is done, and you just drive by and you’re able to say you built it.”
The main fountain at Longwood Gardens doesn’t just spout water — it performs, in coordinated, choreographed, backlit splendor, sending plumes as high as 175 feet. Behind these performances, which are often set to music, is a complex system of pumps, pipes, compressors, and — impressively— robots and computers. And behind all that equipment is a Hodgson Vo-Tech graduate named Jarod Orlando.
Orlando, 22, started in plumbing at the gardens in his junior year of high school, and by the time he graduated, Longwood offered to take him on full time and sponsor his apprenticeship. “I thought it’d be a beautiful place to work,” he says. He finished the apprenticeship last March, and is now responsible for the main fountain, though along with five other plumbers, he’s trained to take care of the water systems across all 1,000 acres at the gardens. After four years full-time at Longwood, Orlando reports, he is, “still here, still loving it.”
Orlando is the youngest of five children, and he comes from a family where meaningful work is important: one brother is in sheet metal, another is in manufacturing, another is an auto mechanic; his sister is a nurse, his father is a boiler operator, and his mother is a para-educator. (And they all hit him up for free tickets to the Longwood Christmas display.) In addition to positive family influences, exposure to the trades in his freshman year at Hodgson helped Orlando find his niche.
“Plumbing really stood out to me. I really liked the hands-on activities, using math — you know, there’s way more to plumbing than everyone thinks,” he says. “When I went into high school, I thought plumbing was just toilets and sinks and that was the extent of it, but getting into class and getting to work with gas piping, irrigation systems, pumps, and pretty much anything with water in it, and all the different kinds of pipes that you can use — copper, PVC, CPVC, galvanized steel, stainless steel — it really just opened up my mind that there’s just way more to this world than most of us really know.”
The work at Longwood Gardens has taken that to another level, where Orlando has had to learn to program robotic nozzles and to direct computer-actuated valves. “It’s just oddities that get thrown in there that you would never think you’d work on in a million years,” he says. The typical workday starts at 6 a.m. with a maintenance show at the main fountain, to make sure everything is running properly and fix any issues.
Just a year out of his apprenticeship, Orlando is getting ready to fulfill another goal. This fall, he’ll be teaching an introduction to plumbing at the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District Adult Education Division. “I’ve always wanted to teach; that’s always been an aspiration too,” he says. He’s already helping to train new apprentices at Longwood, and he recently gave a tour of the gardens to high school freshmen and sophomores from the Delaware Futures program. He told them that, whatever they do, they have to be committed.
“You have to be focused. You actually have to want it and be persistent,” Orlando says. “Be early, show that you want it.”