From Engineering Apprentice to Journeyman Engineer

Man in a lilac button-down shirt with tie posing next to a woman, his wife, in a royal purple top - both against a light gray background.

Don and Sheila Richardson, owners of Aspen Communications, an engineering firm in Prescott, Arizona, are among those veterans who have successfully drawn on their military experience and transitioned well into the civilian world of business.  Aspen is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned small business with a federal 8(a) certification and is located in a HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zone). 


The Service-Disabled and 8(a) designations offer disadvantaged small businesses a leg up in competing for federal contracting opportunities. Presence in a HUBZone also offers a special standing; these zones are targeted for federal contracts designed to spur business and job growth.


Don, a U.S. Navy vet, and Sheila, a U.S. Marine Corps vet, started their business with two employees and revenues of $30,000 in 1999. Today, they employ 20 and have revenues exceeding $2 million. The company focuses on structured cabling and fiber optics, computer networking, network security, surveillance, video conferencing, and telephony with a special emphasis on systems integration. Aspen Communications was having trouble attracting and keeping journeyman engineers.

In keeping with the distinctive training of military experience, the two have sought many sources for guidance along the way including the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Yavapai College and SCORE, which have helped them deal with challenges unique to business and federal contracting. SBDCs and SCORE are partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and offer free one-on-one counseling on all aspects of business.   

As a solution to attract and keep journeyman engineers, they started an in-house apprenticeship program introducing a four-year course to allow employees to graduate as journeymen. The company seeks the best qualified university and technical school graduates. Finding such individuals has proven a challenge, so the Richardsons' solution has been rare and unique in the business world. 

For the past 15 years Aspen has offered employees the opportunity to apprentice with journeyman engineers in a four-year program that allows them closely guided growth and experience to climb the ladder of specialization and expertise. The program is certified by the State of Arizona and the U.S. Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs and assures graduates achieve a certification that is recognized across the country. Although graduates also can follow career paths to high-tech jobs, few have gone through the Aspen program seek employment elsewhere. The program Don and Sheila have in place produces a kind of loyalty seldom found in the current workforce and keeps Aspen a cutting edge, competitive business.

Secret of Success: As Don puts it, “Hard work. We’ve also used and leveraged all the resources of the SBDC, SCORE and the SBA – why wouldn’t we use them? Our apprentice program creates experts and excellence and the quality of our employees allows us to put only three to five people on a job and perform without fault, while we have found that others send three times as many and too often spend customer’s time and money fixing their mistakes.”


Advice to others: Sheila adds, “Stay the distance; it’s worth it. Don’t quit when it seems easier to walk away. It’s not enough to know your trade. You must also know the fundamentals of running a business. So become as qualified in the business of business as you are in your profession.”  

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.