Once Eric Severson settled on pursuing a career as an electrician, he never looked back.
"I don't think I ever doubted it for a second," Severson said. "I come from a family of tradesmen. It was kind of a natural fit."
The Highland resident — "I live two blocks from where I grew up" — is a project manager and estimator at Sweney Electric, where he's worked 16 of the 17 years he's been a union electrician with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 697.
"If you can handle it, it's a very good career," Severson said. "When you're in, it's like a family. We call it a brotherhood; it truly is."
Severson's specialty has been larger projects, particularly schools. In recent years, he has worked on Eisenhower Elementary School in Crown Point, Protsman Elementary School in Dyer and Rensselaer Central Primary School.
The job is physically and mentally demanding.
Electricians working in a refinery or mill can work in temperatures well over 100 degrees; electricians working outdoors could face sub-zero temperatures.
"You have to be able to perform in all extremes," Severson said. "It's mentally draining."
During his career, Severson has generally worked a standard 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift — "I've been pretty lucky." Industrial jobs can sometimes be seven days a week, 12 hours a day for extended periods, he said.
The work requires a sound knowledge of algebra, trigonometry and geometry.
"Our trade is heavily math-based," Severson said. "The foundation of what we do is theory."
Technological advances require constant updating of skills. "There's always something new," Severson said.
And, the job can be dangerous. "You're working with something you can't see but can do tremendous damage," Severson said. "You really have to know what you're doing."
All of that leads to a thorough vetting of candidates to the journeyman apprenticeship program. Applicants are given an aptitude test and are interviewed by a committee of contractors and electricians.
The goal is to determine, "can you take the grind of what we do?" Severson said. "We try to identify people we believe can handle that."
Any given year, the program may have 200 to 300 applicants, Severson said. The training center typically accepts 20 to 30 into a "boot camp," the last stage of the application process.
For the last decade, Severson has been an instructor in IBEW 697's training program. The union's headquarters and training center are on Mississippi Street in Merrillville. The modern facility has a wind turbine easily seen from Interstate 65.
Applicants have ranged in age from 18 to their 40s, Severson said. He estimated 80 to 85 percent of those accepted into boot camp make it through. The camp runs four hours per evening, Monday through Thursday, for four weeks.
"They are heavily evaluated," Severson said. The apprentices need to score above 80 percent on tasks and tests to move into the apprenticeship program.
After four weeks, they're sent out to a job, often on residential projects, as apprentices. "That's where a lot of guys get started," Severson said.
The full apprenticeship lasts five years, with about 8,000 hours on the job and 2,000 hours in the classroom.
The schooling is free for students, financed by contributions from union members.
Those who get through the program enter a career with plenty of opportunity to advance, Severson said. And, "very few people drop out."
Local 697 has about 1,000 members, "almost fully employed" right now, Severson said, though that changes with the economy.
Compensation, including union-financed health care and pensions, can exceed $100,000 annually. Apprentices start at $11 to $12 per hour, and as long as their performance is good, receive 10 incremental pay increases throughout the five-year apprenticeship, from which they emerge as journeymen who can make more than $40 per hour.
For Severson, who grew up in a single parent household, the electrical trade has made the American Dream a reality.
"The opportunities that this has afforded me have made me middle class," he said.
How he got the job: After one semester at Purdue University Calumet, Severson decided to become a carpenter. After realizing he preferred electrical work, he entered IBEW 697's journeyman apprentice training program. He completed that in 2004 as the local's Apprentice of the Year, earning journeyman status. "Right away, I basically became a foreman," Severson said.
What the job pays: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an electrician nationwide in 2012 was $49,840 per year.
Job growth: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth for the profession from 2012 to 2022 will be 20 percent.