Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County

One volunteer’s pathway into the building trades

Trade apprenticeships are a way that students can gain certified skills that can help lead them to good jobs. One pathway into exploring the exciting world of the building trades is by first becoming a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Volunteering allows everyone the chance to try out tools and skills under the guidance of our professional construction managers, to see if the building trades are right for them. From its inception, Habitat has been a hands-on, volunteer-driven building program.

A recent Habitat volunteer working at the Telegraph Townhomes Community, Edie Stickel, has had firsthand experience with this career pathway.

“I was doing shipping and receiving before volunteering for Habitat. I did that for 9 years,” said Edie Stickel during her lunch break one afternoon at the Telegraph Townhomes Community. “I was going absolutely nowhere,” she says, laughing. “I went to WorkSource and they told me about this pre-apprenticeship program, a three-week class at Northwest Carpenters Institute (NWCI). I figured that I had nothing else going on, so I might as well check it out. It turned out I really liked it.

Edie Stickel working on siding at Telegraph“I used tools I’d never used before. The first project we did in the class was to build a sawhorse,” Stickel continued. “It was three weeks practicing for the Carpenters’ Union test. I really liked everything about that class and decided I wanted to continue on with it.”

Why carpentry? “I had absolutely no clue about it,” said Stickel. “I didn’t think it was something I was capable of. I like that carpentry isn’t one thing. There are a lot of great trades, but a lot of them focus on one type of thing. But I’m interested in general carpentry, so you get a mix of all sorts of stuff. It’s always changing. You don’t do the same thing all day long.”

WorkSource helped her explore apprenticeship options in the building trades. Not only are programs available in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and engineering, apprenticeships can also be found in healthcare, manufacturing, and even in technology.

For Stickel, it was carpentry all the way, bolstered by the inspiration and the encouragement she was given by her NWCI instructors. “Two of my teachers specialized in scaffolding and were really supportive through my class,” she said. “That’s when I discovered I could use a saw, swing a hammer, and do things I never thought were possible. But I didn’t have anyone who was pushing me in the direction of any one trade.

“You don’t have to take a pre-apprenticeship class, but it helps,” she continued. “You get more detail about what being a carpenter really entails. Then I had to take a ‘trade orientation’ test, which involves climbing ladders, hammering nails, carrying plywood and two-by-fours, basic math and measurements, along with a few other physical tasks.

“I didn’t do much math for about 9 years, so re-learning all the basic math and measurements was a bit of a struggle at first,” continued Stickel. “But I did really well on the math portion. The physical-strength part intimidated me a little bit at first. But I built up my physical strength, too. Physical strength is something you can always build on.”

Students move along to an interview if they do well enough on their tests. Then they find a contractor either through a union or on their own. At that point, the apprenticeship begins.

So how did she find Habitat? “One of my instructors in my pre-apprenticeship class suggested Habitat as a way for me to practice my skills and to get real experience. I had a three-month waiting period between my classes, tests, and finding an apprenticeship. My instructor said a good way to get practice would be to volunteer at Telegraph.”

Edie Stickel installing cabinets at Telegraph
Telegraph February 2020

“Habitat wants to be a low barrier for people to get into the trades,” said Chris van Staalduinen, Habitat Construction Manager at the Telegraph build site. “The interesting thing about Edie is that she didn’t like where she was going with her previous career. She saw the trades as a way to get something else. But it’s hard in a for-profit industry of any kind to find a way to get your feet wet, to see if you like it or don’t like it.

“Edie came out to volunteer,” added van Staalduinen. “We were able to give her a little more experience. With her test results for her apprenticeship, she knocked it out of the park. Edie did a lot of it on her own. We just gave her a chance to get more comfortable doing carpentry.”

Habitat is an avenue into the trades. “The cool thing about Habitat is one week we might be doing concrete work, the next week we might be putting up cabinets. We offer a broad exposure to a lot of different aspects of building. We also take the time to show people the proper way to do things. We can do this because we don’t solely have a production mindset like a for-profit jobsite,” said van Staalduinen.

Edie still volunteers at Telegraph as she prepares for her formal apprenticeship. Habitat inspired her, but she inspires us every day she’s on the build site through her passion for the work, and through her commitment to sharing her talents with others to build more safe, decent, affordable housing in our community.

The Telegraph Townhomes development is a partnership project between Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County, Kulshan Community Land Trust, and the Whatcom Community Foundation.

[Every cash gift we receive at Habitat, no matter how small, returns when each Habitat home buyer makes their monthly mortgage payments. This enables us to purchase more supplies for another home. Habitat’s core value, “a hand-up, not a hand-out,” means that every penny is repaid. Please consider pledging $5 per month.]


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