In 2011, Rontroy Benally left New Mexico on a bus headed for Cleveland, Oklahoma. With a duffle bag and his last $20 in hand, he didn’t know what to expect. Yet, he felt confident he could improve his situation. Ahead, Rontroy believed the potential to gain new skills and begin a career was worth the 800-mile journey.
“I grew up in a very poor family,” he said of the Navajo reservation with 450 people near the four corners area of Crowne Point. A man of few words, Rontroy recalls a childhood home without running water or electricity until he turned 8 years old.
Maybe because he came from a religious background, he had faith things would improve. As a young man on the reservation, he earned a plumbing certification through the Albuquerque Job Corps, but was unable to find steady work beyond an occasional odd job. “I had the basic skills, but no structured, hands-on training,” he said.
Fatefully, a church mission group from Cleveland came to the reservation in 2011 to repair the plumbing at his grandfather’s church. It was there that Rontroy met a few of the plumbing contractors who worked on a kitchen and bathroom. One of them stayed in touch with him after returning to Oklahoma, encouraging Rontroy to visit and see what it held for him. Another encouraged him to seek employment with the contractor and learn more about the plumbing trade.
With their inspiration in mind, Rontroy found an apprenticeship program with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union in Tulsa. He applied and was accepted. In 2016, he completed his plumbing apprenticeship. “It changed everything for me. It made my life better and let me go to different places,” said Rontroy, now 30. With the skills learned in his apprenticeship, Rontroy feels his future is secure. He now works for a construction company, has doubled his wages and has valuable benefits. His ability to provide for himself and his 11-year-old daughter is what, he says, makes him happy, and is a source of real pride.
Today, Rontroy is a big proponent of the program that gave him a new life – telling friends and family to see if an apprenticeship might work for them.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration provides a list of apprenticeship opportunities near you. Information is also available by subscribing to its Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services’ e-mail subscription service.
Editor’s note: The DOL Working for You series highlights the Labor Department’s programs in action. View other posts in the series here.
Juan J. Rodriguez is the deputy Regional director for the Office of Public Affairs in Dallas.