Paul Tse, 30, isn’t afraid to admit that he wasn’t the best student in high school — he even told Congress. In May, Tse testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education as part of a push by the Associated Builders and Contractors to bolster spending for the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Training Act, which aims to improve technical training opportunities.
In his statement, Tse, who emigrated with his family from Hong Kong to Montgomery County, MD, in 1996, explained that enrolling in the HVAC program at the Thomas Edison High School of Technology, in Silver Spring, MD, gave him necessary direction. “Spending my mornings in a typical classroom and afternoons at Edison, I was introduced into the world of construction and the skilled trades,” he told Congress.
A few weeks before he graduated, Tse was offered a job as an apprentice with local contractor Shapiro & Duncan Mechanical Contractors, in Rockville, MD, attending the Air Conditioner Contractors of America apprenticeship program in the evenings. “Even before my peers packed up their cars and headed out for freshman move-in day, I accepted a [position] and got right to work,” he said in his statement.
We talked with Tse, today a project manager with Shapiro & Duncan, about how he’s forging a path in the industry, the role of technical education today and what it was like to share his story with Congress.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
As your friends were heading off to two- and four-year colleges, what did you think of your decision to pursue a trade?
TSE: It was nerve-wracking. Everybody was going to go tour different colleges and talking about their campuses and so on. I had nothing to show for it. To me, I was taking a big risk. I wasn't sure what the road ahead was going to be like. Nobody had told me whether it was going to be easy or if it was going to be hard, or if I was going to have a decent-paying job. All those things were unknown to me.
What did your instructors say about the decision to go into the apprenticeship program?
TSE: My teachers were positive. They were all tradesmen who had retired or stopped working in the trade to become teachers. They were all like: "You can definitely get out of here and be able to find a job right away. That’s a skill set that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your four-year apprenticeship?
TSE: Showing up on time and being prepared for whatever you're doing that day, as well as your craftsmanship — putting pride in your work. Not only does that show to your mentors and your superiors but, at the end of the day, it also shows to your customer, which will reflect on how you do with your supervisors and your mentors. Also, being prepared to learn every single day. You have no idea what you're going to encounter on your next project or even the following day on the same project.
Can you describe the experience of testifying in front of Congress on the importance of technical training?
TSE: It was very scary. The opportunity came up randomly through the ABC. It was a normal day of work for me and then I got a phone call, which became a phone interview, which eventually evolved into going in front of the panel to testify. They were looking for a success story [for technical training programs].
Did you realize you were a “success story” before they told you?
TSE: Not really. I just think I'm a normal American who immigrated to the States and this is, to me, the American Dream. Starting out with next to nothing and getting that education you're looking for, getting out of your education without accruing debt and then having a normal life.
After the testimony, did you find that your position on the role of technical training and mentoring changed?
TSE: It did, a little bit. After everybody told me how they felt about my testimony, I was a little shocked because I didn't think I was doing anything special. I thought this was a normal path, and that's when I started hearing that a lot of these other people still have a bad taste in their mouth of looking at construction workers as blue collar, inappropriate, disrespectful, uneducated. But that’s not the reality. The path of going down a four-year technical program in lieu of a four-year or two-year college should be open to everyone, not just people who couldn't make it in school.
What kind of mentoring opportunities have been available to you?
TSE: I would consider myself extremely lucky in terms of having mentors in this trade. A couple of incredible individuals at Shapiro & Duncan have taught me from 75% to 80% of what I know today. They took my hand and showed me how to do the things in the field. And then whatever I did by hand during the day, I went into school at night [as a part of the apprenticeship program] to get a more technical explanation, which reinforced my background of this trade.
I was never the best student in high school, and going into the classroom made me cringe a little bit. But in this case, it was encouraging. It was different than my high school career because whatever I learned during the day by hand, I was getting the explanation that night. It was like two pieces of a puzzle and a light bulb coming on.
What do you think the industry could be doing better in terms of bring up younger people through the ranks?
TSE: Awareness and advertisement. Being able to explain to kids that being a construction worker [is a positive], that's step one. Step two would be having school systems be more open to having contractors go to their school to show kids that there are apprenticeship programs that they can go into and they're not going to owe anybody a dime and are getting a skill set that they can take anywhere.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
TSE: My hope is that I will still be here at Shapiro & Duncan, and for the most part doing something similar but maybe at a higher level, like looking at multiple projects at a time as a senior project manager or some type of project executive. But maybe 10 years is too soon. Maybe I need more time.