Greg Alexander

Don’t Sit There! Not all good jobs require you to work in an office

CareerFocus, Spring 2007

Do you hate the idea of sitting behind a desk all day? Would you rather get your hands dirty making something rather than pushing paper and staring at a computer screen? Do you wish there were good jobs out there that didn’t require four years of college?

Well there are. Many specialized trades - construction, electrical trades, HVAC and plumbing to name a few - deliver great opportunities and strong hourly wages. They’re the kind of jobs that keep you on the move, too. You’re going to spend your day working with your hands, and moving from one location to another. No windowless office for you. “I’d go crazy if I was in a cubicle all day; I need to be outside,” says Steve Simmons, a carpenter in Hilbert, Wisc., near Green Bay, and a 27-year veteran of the construction business. “Even when I’m inside, every day that I am at that job, I am one day closer to a new job, which will be totally different. Every day is a new challenge, which is exciting.” And according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth in construction trades is stronger than most fields, so plenty of opportunities are available.

Being “penny-wise” key to success

While many jobs in construction trades pay well, professionals in the field say that the key to financial success is to realize there will be ups and downs throughout the year, so “saving for a rainy day” is important.

“You have to be smart enough to save money when your schedule is busy and have a plan established for how you’re going to pick up additional funds when times are slow,” says Simmons. Troy Watkins, a builder in Easley, S.C., agrees. “It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride sometimes. You have to be financially disciplined because many times, you’re living off of ‘borrowed money,’ in that you’re counting on the profits from the job you’re working on. You can’t go buy a new truck the moment you get paid.”

Lee Bennett, owner of Interior and Exteriors, a painting, wallpapering and basement waterproofing company in Skaneateles, N.Y., started his business over 20 years ago and says that “the first three years were the toughest. You have to learn from your mistakes and make better use of your materials and labor, especially during the lean times when you have to diversify or cut back on staff.”

Weather, economy play big roles

“I do about 65 percent of my business in the summer because of the harsh winters in New York,” adds Bennett. “I am already booked for the entire summer this year, but in the winter, the painting business in slow.” It was this seasonal slowdown that prompted Bennett to add basement waterproofing to his list of services five years ago. “It’s a nice side business, especially with the older homes here. In five years, I’ve worked on 55 basements.”

The same is true for other trades too: “There is always a need for air conditioning service here in Florida, but the spring and summer months are definitely the busiest,” says Ron Banks, owner of Rebco Air in Flagler County, Florida.

Simmons says that although Wisconsin’s harsh winters play a role, the economy is the biggest factor on his job. “Two years ago, the housing economy was strong and houses were popping up all over the place. Because of this, new schools and hospitals needed to be built, too. It was great for me; I was working long hours but making great money. However, every five to seven years, there seems to be a slowdown, which we’re experiencing now, but it always picks back up.”

“Most of my work comes via builders, so when their business is slow, so is mine,” concurs Banks.

Tera Fink, vice president of Frassrand Custom Homes in Flagler County agrees that construction-related work has its boom and bust periods. “We’re in one of the fastest growing counties in the country and close to the beach, so we sell to a lot of homes to new retirees. Last year was a slower year for us than normal, but this year looks better.”

Not an 8-to-5 job

Depending on the job and production schedule, workers in specialized trades often work evenings and weekends. Darrell Lawson, an electrician with 37 years of experience, works for Butcher Electric and has been working at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Ky., since 1994. “I work on Saturdays and Sundays, and most times we are doing a week’s worth of work in two days.” Lawson says that the work he does is performed on the weekends so that the production team can start work each Monday at 7 a.m. “It doesn’t matter if we have to work 24 hours straight; it has to be finished by Monday, as production can’t be held up.”

Simmons says that his carpentry work also involves weekend work. “If we are working at a school or hospital, for example, we have to work around their operating schedules. I also had a job at a paper mill, where we could only work when the plant was not operating. We had to finish our work on weekends so that we weren’t in the way.”

Be your own boss

Many people in construction eventually own their own business, giving them more control over their schedule. John Akhoian owned a plumbing business for several years before deciding to purchase a Mr. Rooter franchise, a nationwide full-service plumbing and drain cleaning company with over 300 locations. “Ten years ago, I bought the Sun Valley, Calif., franchise and employed one technician. I now own three franchises with additional locations in Tucson, Ariz., and San Jose, Calif.” Akhoian says that buying a franchise allows him to utilize established training systems and tap into the company’s technological advances, which helps distinguish his company from the competition.

Of course, being your own boss can be challenging. “I have to wear many different hats and manage the different personalities of subcontractors I hire,” says Watkins, who chose construction as a profession after he enjoyed working for his dad during summers off from school. “I once had a landscaper run over an electrician’s cord, and the two started fighting right before the homeowner was to arrive. I had to play referee.” However, Watkins adds, being your own boss in this business can be quite rewarding. “You get to be a leader, a problem-solver and you get to see a house come together step by step. I need to see tangible results from work, which you don’t get by sitting at a desk all day. I built my house and the house next door to mine. I can wake up in morning, have a cup of coffee and look at my neighbor’s house every day and say, ‘I built that house.’ I even remember the day I put the roof on that house. I know the family is happy living there, and that is personally satisfying.”

Simmons adds that construction work can be arduous at times, which is part of the appeal. “We’re working on a 100-year-old farmhouse now, which had to be completely lifted in order to pour concrete because the house was 12 feet off level. We are redoing the entire house, which is challenging, but fun at the same time.”

Getting started

Lawson says that when decided to be an electrician, the choices were to “go into the service, go to college or lean a trade. I did not want to enlist in the service and college wasn’t for me; I wanted to learn a trade where I could land a job quickly. The other opportunities at that time were being an iron or steel worker, which did not appeal to me like being an electrician.”

One of the best ways to get into the business, says Lawson, is through a union. “I had a friend get me into a union in 1967,” says Lawson, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “You spend four years working as an apprentice to become a qualified general electrician. You can work your way up from starting at $10 an hour to making $30 an hour, and electricians are always in demand, especially for builders.

“We have lots of college graduates in our trade because they can make better money as an electrician … although even the college grads have to go through the apprentice program.” Lawson adds that those in a union also have the opportunity to pick up jobs in other parts of the country, a plus for younger workers who want to travel.

Community colleges all over the country also offer certificates and associate degrees in construction trades, HVAC, electrical fundamentals and other related fields. Most take two years or less to complete and some are in conjunction with union apprenticeship programs.

Another avenue for training is via a franchise, like Mr. Rooter. Akhoian says that he hires trainees with no plumbing experience but who are mechanically inclined. “Next, they can become technicians and can advance to a field manager and then an operations manager position. I started the San Jose franchise by having an operations manager buy into the new franchise and become a shareholder/manager, who shares in the profits. Meanwhile, the Tucson franchise is run by a former schoolteacher.”

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