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Local 49 Apprentice Julia Theobald Finds Success as a Heavy Equipment Operator

By McKenna Manalli

In her senior year of high school, Julia Theobald received some advice that most young adults have never heard.

Julia was told there was an option other than college or the military after high school. In fact, her stepfather advised her to not even bother with college.

“I thought, why would I go into debt when I didn’t even have a plan for what I wanted to study in college or where I wanted to be afterwards,” says Theobald.

To say that this line of thinking came as a shock to her friends is an understatement. 

As her friends and classmates at Zimmerman High School were applying to colleges or the military, Theobald’s news took them by surprise, in particular because she was an honor roll student and even a math tutor.

“Everyone around me just expected that I would to go the traditional route and get a college degree,” she says.

“I know people were shocked, but a career in construction just called to me. I knew it was the right fit,” says Theobald. “Unfortunately I’ve seen five people that I graduated high school with drop out of college with a bunch of debt, while I’m here about to buy my first home. I wish more people knew of the option of going into a trade if they’re unsure about college.”

The possibility of a 21-year-old buying their first home might seem outrageous to the majority of college juniors and seniors her age, but not for someone like Theobald, who has been learning and earning for two years through the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 49, as a heavy equipment operator apprentice.

Before starting at the Local 49, Theobald, a resident of Zimmerman, Minn., started as a pre-apprentice, dedicating her time to gaining the training she needed at Summit Academy, located in Minneapolis, right off of Olson Highway. At Summit Academy, Theobald participated in two 10-week long pre-apprenticeship programs for carpentry and heavy equipment.

“I actually learned about Summit Academy from my mom,” says Theobald. “She remembered seeing their commercials on TV and figured it’d be a great opportunity – and it was.”

After 20 weeks of class, it was time to take the aptitude test, along with 100 other people hoping to ace it and have a chance of getting into the Local 49 apprenticeship program. Julia was one of ten people chosen to take part in the five-week pre-apprenticeship training that would prepare her for getting a job in the union. Once this was completed, Theobald was on the job hunt, looking to get hired by a union contractor and be on her way to starting the apprenticeship program with the Local 49.

“It’s hard work. I think some people don’t understand the knowledge and expertise that is needed to do what we do,” says Theobald.

“Becoming a part of the Local 49 absolutely transformed my life. Until my step-dad had mentioned getting into a union, I had no idea about this option while I was in high school,” she says. “Even during my pre-training I didn’t quite realize how great getting into a union could be.”

The pay is great, but what’s even more exciting, there’s a ton of benefits to working in the union – good pension, great healthcare, ongoing training, and the option to invest in a 401k.

At the Local 49, apprentices are getting top training at a state-of-the-art facility in Hinckley, Minn., that has the ability to produce the best, most professional Operating Engineers in the industry. Once starting at the Local 49, apprentices get to earn while they learn, and begin building an unbeatable health (medical and dental) package and pension plan.

“I can’t imagine not working for a union,” says Theobald. “I’m not racking up any debt, and I get all these great benefits as well.”

During her training, Theobald came to realize the value placed on safety at a construction site. In construction work, safety is imperative, and when working for the Local 49 it’s not something that is taken lightly. The Local 49 boasts a remarkable commitment to teaching safety and protecting all members, especially apprentices that are just learning how to operate the equipment.

“We all look out for one another,” Theobald says. “When it comes down to it, we all want to make it home at the end of the day, so being safe and taking necessary precautions is huge.”

Before getting into the Local 49, Theobald had to get a job with a union contractor. She was ultimately hired by Shafer Contracting, based in Shafer, Minn., an award-winning construction team that specializes in earthwork, underground utilities, concrete paving, curb and gutter, and traffic control.

“I finished up my second year working on highways 694 and 35, and I’ve been asked back for my third year,” says Theobald. “So far, I’ve worked with a few machines such as a roller, off-haul road truck, scraper, loader, and sweeper, but I’m excited to learn how to operate more machines. I really think I’m going to like the excavator and dozer.”

While reflecting back to her childhood through high school, Theobald says, “I always loved playing in the dirt and I was a bit of a tomboy. I didn’t really think about how much I enjoyed playing outside when I was younger, so it never crossed my mind that I could have a career being outside and not sitting in an office until my step-dad pointed it out to me.”

Theobald didn’t realize how successful she could be in this line of work, especially because no one talked about it. None of her teachers ever mentioned construction as a career option. All of the messages she received, primarily because Theobald was a good student, were focused on college.

“Don’t just go to college to make other people happy or because everyone’s telling you it’s the only option,” says Theobald. “Going into construction is a great thing to go into, but a lot of people just don’t realize all the benefits and how much money you can make.”

“I’m going to have a ton of money saved up since I started so early, and then I’ll be able to retire when I’m 55,” Theobald says.

Regarding her career, Theobald knows she’s part of a minority as a woman, but that’s not stopping her.

“We can do it,” says Theobald. “We work just as hard as the boys and we can accomplish anything.”

To learn more about construction apprenticeship opportunities, visit ConstuctionCareers.org. To learn more about the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 49, visit Local49.org.