Roderic Olson has always been an artist and was a professional muralist until the Great Recession reared its ugly head. But what may have seemed like a setback at the time, helped Olson, now a Sheet Metal Local 10 fifth-year apprentice, find another pathway to artistry.
As a muralist, Olson, 50, painted mostly residential homes, including bathrooms, living rooms and children’s bedrooms. A former custom stationery store business owner on Chicago’s north side, painting happy and tranquil scenes in people’s homes was a steady job in Minnesota for him for the better part of 12 years.
“I wasn’t raking in the neurosurgeon bucks, but I kept a roof over my head, went to Europe. I could work for seven to eight months and then go camping or whatever,” he said. “After the Recession hit, everyone was fine with white walls or hanging a poster instead of calling a guy like me.”
Luckily, he had saved money during that time and used some of it to take a two-year welding course at St. Paul College and discovered he “had a knack for it,” he said.
He took classes from Carl Zitzer, now the apprentice coordinator for Local 10, who told him about the apprenticeship.
“I’ve always had the idea of working with metal, building things with metal. I got hooked on the fabrication,” Olson said. “Even building fittings, I really like it. It’s like putting together a puzzle every day.”
After his third year, he contracted a rare form of pneumonia and spent three weeks in the hospital with six months of prescribed recovery time to follow. During that time, Local 10 was supportive and made sure he was reinstated into the next apprenticeship class and sent him to work as soon as he was ready.
“When I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs, let alone hang a pipe,” he said. “I couldn’t say enough good things about them.”
Olson is still looking for opportunities to create, as the skills he’s learning continue to spark his creativity with metal, even though he still paints canvases. This year, he has plans for furniture art pieces as well as more one-dimensional pieces and recreating some of his favorite original pieces in metal.
“Basically, what brought me here was a terrible economy,” Olson said. “Then I realized how much fun it was. That’s what I wanted to do. I keep thinking of the possibilities.”
Sheet metal apprentices receive college-accredited training in AutoCAD, air balancing, refrigeration/service, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design, fabrication and installation. While they are learning in the classroom, they are gaining skills on the job site including installation of architectural sheet metal, kitchen equipment and duct for heating and air conditioning systems in residential and commercial buildings.
The goal is for apprentices to graduate with a college degree, zero college debt and a career to last a lifetime. More than 14,000 apprentices participate in 148 training centers across the United States and Canada, learning curriculum and using the free training materials provided by the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, air conditioning and welding industry.
For more information about ITI and its available training curriculum for members covering sheet metal trade work, visit the website or call 703-739-7200.