Meet a former teacher of 11 years who became a plumbing apprentice during the pandemic: ‘I think the trades are an undervalued career path.’

Carly Carey.

Carly Carey was a teacher for 11 years before making a career switch during the pandemic.
Carey, now a plumbing apprentice, encourages others, especially women, to join skilled trades.
She shares with Insider what made her move into plumbing and what work has been like so far.

Sitting on Carly Carey’s bookshelf next to a picture of the day she first met her niece is a piece of pipe from an old, galvanized drain. It reminds her of one of her favorite days at work as a plumbing apprentice.

Carey, 34, told Insider that she and a plumber were replacing a house’s drainpipe. Before putting in plastic PVC pipe, Carey was cutting out a metal pipe — the one that now sits on Carey’s bookshelf.

“I was getting so frustrated because this piece was so shoved into this main stack,” Carey said. “I’m trying to cut it out, and after about three hours, I finally am able to break it out. It kind of felt like an entire hero’s journey.”

The pipe came to represent Carey’s attitude toward overcoming the trials and tribulations of her new career. “Days when I’m like, ‘I can’t do this,’ I look at that piece of metal, and I think, ‘Yes, I can. I can do this,'” she said. “‘It’s going to be hard sometimes, but I can totally do this.’ That’s sort of one of my favorite days of work so far — was just struggling so much with this task, and then finally achieving it and feeling like I could conquer the world.”

Carey is a second-year plumbing apprentice at Erik Nelson Plumbing in Minnesota after working as a schoolteacher for 11 years. The share of women in skilled trades, including plumbing and electrical, is low. But Carey is hoping to show others, particularly women, the opportunities and benefits of trades. She’s among the teachers and other workers who have left for different jobs and new industries during the pandemic. In December, 4.3 million people quit their job, capping off six straight months with over 4 million quits. 

Apprenticeships can differ in requirements and length, and one benefit is that apprenticeships can give people the chance to learn on the job while getting paid. These opportunities can be found across industries for different occupations, such as for registered nurses in healthcare and carpenters in construction. In fiscal year 2020, there were 636,515 active apprentices and 222,243 new apprentices, the Department of Labor said.

Remote teaching contributed to Carey looking for new work

Following in the footsteps of her parents who were teachers, Carey was a middle-school social-studies teacher for six years in Dayton, Ohio. She then taught English for five years at a school in Dallas.

“I loved teaching, but the world is a really big place, and I wanted to just cultivate some other skills,” Carey said. “But I kind of realized that I didn’t know what that next step would be.”

Carey said teaching remotely for a few months was also a challenge.

“I’m best when I’m with students, and there’s more energy that you can feel in a classroom,” she said. “So that was really hard.”

“I think the pandemic kind of pushed me over the edge of ‘OK, I don’t think I want to go back to the classroom right now just because of the online part of it,'” she said.

She knew she didn’t want to go to grad school after already paying off her student loans. While trying to figure out what her next career move would be in 2020, she watched the home-improvement show “This Old House.” Her boyfriend suggested that maybe a trade job would be good to try.

“The more I thought about that, and the more I learned about the trades, the more I realized it was kind of exactly what I was looking for,” Carey said. “I wanted to learn a new skill without going into debt.”

“And I knew from my research that the trades were always going to be in demand,” she said. She added that the pandemic certainly helped push her in the direction of the trades.

Although she was scared at first and felt like an imposter as an apprentice, she said, she realized that the “whole purpose is you’re there to learn. That kind of takes some of the pressure off.” 

“I think it’s always a little bit scary to change, to go from one thing you know to one thing you don’t know. But I think that that’s where some really amazing and powerful things happen, when you sort of embrace the unknown and embrace something that’s difficult,” she said. 

Erik Nelson, the owner of Erik Nelson Plumbing, said Carey’s “background as a teacher makes her more versatile as an employee.”

“She has sound mechanical and troubleshooting skills, enjoys physical work, and it’s easy to put her in front of customers,” Nelson said in an email. “She is lighthearted, has great communication, and is community-minded so has helped us have a better social experience.”

Carey wants to help others get into plumbing and trade jobs 

Carey said that about eight months into her apprenticeship, she told her boss she was having second thoughts.

“I sort of talked to him about coming from teaching,” Carey said. “I was kind of craving a little more human connection.” 

So in addition to learning the trade, she’s now the outreach coordinator at the company.

“My role in that position is to really get more exposure for the trades and just sort of show people what the trades are all about,” she said.

Carey is a second-year plumbing apprentice.

One way Carey is doing this is through a recently created Instagram account for work, @enp_outreach. She also has a personal account, @theplumbher, that shows her life as an apprentice.

“People can make a very healthy, great living in the trades,” Carey said. “It’s not even part of a lot of people’s conversations about the future. So I think my biggest thing is, I’m just trying to show what the trades are.”

Carey is the only female plumber where she works, but she said she’s “never felt weird being the only woman” and enjoys working with all of the workers. To get more women in the trades, she said it came down to “exposure and reeducation about what the trades are and how vital they are.” 

Carey still has to accumulate more hours as an apprentice before becoming a licensed plumber. After “about four years’ worth of work, then I can sit for my state test, and then I will become a licensed plumber after I pass that,” she said.

Overall, Carey said she was happy she took a chance working a skilled trade.

“I think the trades are an undervalued career path,” she said. “I think it is a great way to be a part of your community and give back to your community while also making a great living and getting paid to learn something, to learn a skill that forever will be valuable.”

Have you recently left a job during the pandemic for an apprenticeship or for a new industry? Email this reporter at

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Economy, Markets, Careers, Economy, teacher, Apprentice, apprenticeships, Skilled Trades, Plumbing, Jobs

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