Jonathan Sherwin has spent much of his Pittsburgh Local 5 apprenticeship performing heavy industrial work, often in steel mills that frame western Pennsylvania history.
|Sherwin has found that his experience with robotics has helped him on the job. He know volunteers to serve as the head of the club he was part of just a few years ago.
|Pittsburgh Local 5 apprentice Jonathan Sherwin
|Sherwin with Rachel Hienz, a first-year instructor at Local 5’s training center, outside Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center after a recent robotics tournament there.
He realized early that the lessons learned in high school robotics just a few years ago would serve him well on the job.
"It was so similar," said Sherwin, now a third-year apprentice working for Hey Electric. "There is one central brain that is similar to a PLC [programmable logic controller], where all the motors and sensors connect and communicate."
Robotics were so important to Sherwin as he grew up in a little town north of Pittsburgh that, even with the demands of an apprenticeship, he didn't hesitate to return as an adviser to the community's robotics team just after his high school graduation in 2019.
"We're a tight-knit group in such a small community," he said. "A lot of our alumni have moved on to be electrical engineers or into electrical work, and they know how to build and design things. We all know how to focus on the task at hand and want to give back."
He shows that same attitude on the job and in the classroom, too.
"When someone comes to you with his skill set, it's a gift," said Rachel Hienz, a first-year apprentice instructor at Local 5's JATC. "We get some kids that come in who truly have not held a screwdriver in their hands before. To get someone with Jonathan's skills, it's impressive."
Hienz added: "He's a leader, he's a mentor. I'd see him lean over with other students who might be struggling and say, 'Hey, do you need help with this?'"
Sherwin's values and work ethic were formed in Parker, Pa., population 695 and about a 65-mile drive from Pittsburgh. He still calls it home and has no plans to move. He enjoys looking out his window and seeing cows and farms instead of the Steel City's skyline.
His father was a 37-year member of the Machinists Union and now is a member of the Operating Engineers. And like his dad, the younger Sherwin, now 22, knew quickly that he wanted to work with his hands.
"I had no interest in college," he said. "I grew up a worker. I'm a hands-on person."
That's one reason he turned to robotics. Unlike in larger communities, the local school system wasn't big enough to have a robotics team. (Sherwin was one of 50 members of his high school graduation class.)
Fortunately, the local 4-H chapter did, and Sherwin joined it in the fifth grade.
"That really broadened what was out there electrically," he said. "I really enjoyed wiring up the robot as good as it could be."
Thus began a seven-year adventure that took him to events across Pennsylvania and as far away as St. Louis. His travels were sponsored by FIRST, one of the top student robotics competitions in the country with livestreamed events on YouTube.
The challenge was to build a robot weighing nearly 120 pounds with chain and belt drives and plenty of pneumatic elements. Sherwin wanted it to be strong, fast and mobile, but also sleek.
"We would take time to make [the robot] look nice," he said. "We would see 60 other robots at a regional competition, and you could see other teams didn't take that into consideration. They were just interested in getting it running."
Sherwin's interest in working with his hands didn't stop with robotics. Through most of high school, he worked in a machine shop after class. He also worked for a tree service.
He considered becoming a welder, but his interest in electrical work was set by graduation. A Local 5 member who lived nearby told him about the apprenticeship program and how much he appreciated IBEW membership.
"He said the only downside was you had to drive to Pittsburgh pretty often," Sherwin said. "Other than that, he was really pleased with his career. He had a happy life."
Hienz said Sherwin's maturity level was noticeable from the start.
"At that stage, most of the apprentices — and I don't say this in a bad way — don't think about ways to give back," she said. "They're so young, and they just want to leave as soon as they get their work done."
That's why she was impressed, but hardly surprised, when she learned Sherwin was serving as a leader in the same robotics chapter he grew up in.
"He isn't getting paid," she said. "He's so selfless. With the talent he has, he's definitely modest."
Hienz and some of Sherwin's other instructors attended a regional competition in Pittsburgh recently that included his team. The work cuts into what little free time he has, but Sherwin said it's been worth it.
"To see the amount of growth in the students is really what makes it worth it for me," he said. "When we go to a competition and see the robots operate, and see the successes and failures, I know exactly what they felt. I was in their shoes."
Sherwin isn't sure where his IBEW career will take him, whether it's working with the tools, as a project manager or owning his own business. The possibilities are endless, he said.
Those close to him agree.
"He already has something to give, and he recognizes it," Hienz said. "He's really wise beyond his years."