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Trade Scholar Finds Her Niche in Skilled Trades

by Karen Knapstein

Butte, Montana, resident Maria Ralph was awarded a mikeroweWORKS Foundation Scholarship in 2017. Maria became interested in building early in her life, though she didn’t act on the impulse to get into skilled trades until relatively recently. “I wanted building blocks as a child. I wanted a Barbie house too, but for the sake of having the house – not the dolls that went with it,” she mused. 

“When I was about 10, I found floorplans on scraps of paper,” she recalled. “I guess my Dad was interested in architecture when he was younger. But when I found the scraps of hand-drawn floorplans, I was fascinated with it.” 

However, Maria couldn’t pursue her interest in building as a young adult. “When I graduated from high school, I passed up the opportunity to go to the University of Arizona, where I grew up.” At that time, she took a one-year course at the Phoenix Institute of Technology and earned a certificate. While there, she met her husband and moved to Montana. 

“I worked jobs here and there and ended up working at Staples. I worked there for a long time, but got tired of the corporate culture,” she explained. “I ended up opening my own coworking space.”

Finding Inspiration in Skilled Trades

Habitat for Humanity proved to be Maria’s first solid step toward entering the construction trade. Her coworking space is next to Habitat for Humanity; she decided to volunteer and found that she loved it. “I did a lot of painting and trim work. I got to work on a lot of different projects. I really enjoyed it.”  

The inspiration to jump in with both feet came from an unexpected direction. “It felt like I had a lot of extra time on my hands, and I was trying to figure out how to make my business work better. I’m a faith-based person; I was praying for guidance on what to do.” Inspiration struck when her son and his girlfriend began attending Highlands College, the trades part of Montana Tech. 

“My son’s girlfriend went into the carpentry program and she just loved it,” Maria recalled. Highlands College Associate Dean Bill Ryan made the schooling experience an overwhelmingly positive one. “My son’s girlfriend had lots of good things to say about the program.” It all sounded encouraging, so Maria looked into the school for herself and told her husband that she was thinking about attending; he was supportive from the get-go.

She registered and started in the construction program at Highlands in Fall 2017. Having stepped down as associate dean of the college, Bill Ryan was one of her instructors. “Those two years at Highlands, when I was hands-on working on projects, it was wonderful,” Maria said. “At the time, the college had a service/learning partnership with Habitat for Humanity, so I ended up working back there as part of the instruction. I did a lot of things; I learned a lot from working with Habitat for Humanity. I found my tribe and they carry hammers. I knew that was where I was supposed to be.”  

Scholarship Opens More Doors

Maria Ralph skilled trades
mikeroweWORKS Foundation scholarship recipient Maria Ralph is now pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Construction Business Management and hopes to one day become a general contractor. Submitted photo.

Maria applied for the mikeroweWORKS Foundation Scholarship the spring before she started at Highlands. She was notified of winning the scholarship the week before she started school. When asked about her scholarship application experience, she said, “The process was very easy. You have to write a little bit about what you hope to do with your education in the trades, and answer questions about your experience and how eager you are to be a recipient. But it was very easy. It’s one of easiest scholarships to apply for. Plus, they have a partnership with Wolverine, and they gave me a free pair of boots. The mikeroweWORKS foundation is very supportive of the trades and getting into the trades. And they support people who want to get an education to get a good paying job without a lot of debt. I still share that information with other students. I tell them it’s one of the easier scholarships to apply for.”

After completing her initial two-year program, Maria decided to continue her education by entering the Highlands College construction management program. “It’s a business management degree,” she explained. “A business degree with construction emphasis. It includes operations management, human resources, and a little construction, like estimating and scheduling. A lot of it is geared towards engineering. I’m graduating in December 2021.”

Even though she is still attending school, Maria remains intent on keeping her S.W.E.A.T. Pledge. “The Pledge is very relatable to me so I have no problem sticking with it,” she said. “My Dad raised four girls with a strong work ethic; he wasn’t afraid to put us to work. 

“Trying to keep the debt down is one of the bigger points,” she continued. (The second part of her education – the management part – hasn’t been supported by a lot of scholarships.) “I’m taking on extra gigs to pay for it. Knowing what I do and having a trade background is how I’m paying for the management program. That’s keeping the debt down.”

Ambassador for the Trades

Maria acts as an ambassador for the skilled trades by informing students about (and offering to help them with) the mikeroweWORKS Foundation scholarship applications. She also encourages men and women of all ages to work with their hands. When asked what advice she would give those who are thinking about entering the skilled trades, she said, “Jump on it! I’m 51 years old. One of the things I came across at Highlands College is some of the best, most engaged students were in their early thirties. They had already left their run at another career or job to make a living. They found their second wind at Highlands learning a trade. 

“I met a woman in her mid-thirties who entered the welding program,” Maria recalled. “She flourished! She found her niche. Some students were veterans who were finding another way to do things by entering the fabrication or welding program and carpentry program. You get to a point where you realize that some people enter jobs to make a living. Then some realize they can find something they love. It’s satisfying using your hands! Anyone who reaches the point of asking themselves, ‘What am I doing here?’ should look for the opportunity to get into a good trade school.”

Having no background in working with one’s hands shouldn’t be a deterrent to learning a trade. Maria explained, “I was at that [inexperienced] point when I first got into school. They teach you what you need to know in a program; they teach you how to do it all. And they teach you safety. It’s a learning process. If you’re not sure, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. You’ll get a feel for what it takes. I don’t know if I would have figured it out without volunteering. What gave me that final push to enter school was volunteering (painting and doing trim work).”

Seek Apprenticeships

When asked what she would have done differently, she said she would have taken advantage of out-of-state apprenticeship opportunities. “Take advantage of apprenticeships and internships because, from what I’ve heard from my classmates, the internships are super valuable. When summer comes along, jump on ‘em and learn. And they make good money! I have classmates who came back from jobs out of state, and they had a new truck. They got paid really well. If I could go back in time, I would have taken advantage of those internships and apprenticeships because you learn so much more about the trade.”

Thanks to hands-on construction training, Maria feels there are many opportunities for her. And she’s not ruling out larger-scale construction work. When asked what her goals are, she said, “I hope to start a small business, a handyman service. I really like to do trim work; I like the details of construction. I may possibly move on to become a general contractor. I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people that general contractors are needed. There’s a building boom in Montana,” she explained. “The population is taking huge jumps; people are moving in. The building boom was going strong even through COVID lockdowns.”

Maria’s enthusiasm is contagious. “We’re living in a great country where there are opportunities,” she said enthusiastically. “I am super fortunate to live in the United States. There’s so much opportunity here! As a Hispanic woman, to be able to get an education in the trades and get a job — and have people approaching me for jobs — I feel very fortunate.”  RB


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