Career Change to a Durable Trade, by A Grateful Mechanic

I get great enjoyment from reading the perspectives and implementing the ideas in SurvivalBlog. This is a wonderful space to be able to share operating experience and ideas for making our futures brighter and better.

An article by Mr. Rawles dated October 12, 2009 references career paths that are recession-proof: What Recovery? Find yourself a Recoveryless Job. In the article, he made reference to difficult, dirty, and dangerous jobs. I recall reading that article and it made an impact on me and my life.
Six years ago, I embarked on a journey to find a new career that would offer greater life satisfaction and job security. As a result, I have landed on what I believe is a recession-proof career.

As background, I have a liberal arts university degree and had worked in office administration, primarily focused on management and development of business development teams in the software industry. I was in my mid-thirties when I moved from working in technology sales and sales management into a different future career path. I had been reasonably successful on the business development path and had I stayed I would be making very good money that would be at the cost of being unfulfilled and living in major urban centers.

My life had gone through several cataclysmic changes directly preceding my choice to leave office work. I was in  a unique position at that time of having few fixed assets and due to changes within my company structure my division was made redundant. I am single and have no children. I had some money saved up and received a severance package. I felt that the Lord was telling me to move in a different direction. I am eternally grateful for this guidance.

In the years prior to making the change I had considered that I was not fulfilled with the work I was doing. Often, I would consider other paths and wish I knew how to do something different. I had started to make lists of what I enjoy doing for work with the hopes that in the future I would find my path.

I made a list of my personal assets:

Good cook, sales ability, mechanical aptitude, detail-oriented, strong communication skills, able to analyze situations successfully to predict outcomes, physical strength, management acumen, strong English and Spanish communication abilities, understanding of technology and computers, faith in God, planning ability, and a desire to enjoy my work.

From that list I knew I needed to try out several different career paths to identify what would be the best one for me.

I considered computer programming, becoming a chef, working with cranes, different sales paths, and being a group leader for wilderness expeditions. Each of these paths offered a number of benefits and had challenges with them. I created a spreadsheet and listed benefits and challenges for each career.

I took action to test out my skill sets and find my path.

When I took a year off to explore different career paths, I knew that I had doors open to me to return to corporate sales should I learn that this was not for me. It is nice to have options and to have supportive friends.

One of my first volunteer experiences was working a chef during my time off was at a community food kitchen located in a major metropolitan area. Of all of my experience this was my favorite. I worked as a temporary kitchen assistant for the catering program at a large nonprofit in a major metropolitan area that helps provide careers for formerly incarcerated people and homeless people. They teach culinary abilities along with planning and administration to be able to develop careers in the restaurant industry.

Additionally, this nonprofit won contracts for schools to provide high-quality nutritious meals to young people in impoverished neighborhoods. It was very satisfying to work with motivated people who were proud of the work they were accomplishing. I found the physicality of peeling and cutting squash for 8,000 kids meals satisfying and I learned a lot from my fellow workers. One of my favorite lessons there was to put hot sauce on citrus or other fruit. It was a delicious and joyful place to volunteer.

The key benefit that came from this volunteer experience was an understanding that a sense of brotherhood and shared purpose is important in a work environment.

Another place I volunteered was overseas at a spiritual community in the Caribbean. There I was a chef. They drew volunteers from all over the world and had a really nice kitchen. We would be making meals for 250-400 people a day and it was a good opportunity to see if cooking was for me.

I enjoyed the camaraderie in the kitchen and the routine of getting up early every day to prepare meals for so many people. Our budget constraints were very tight. We had no labor cost as everyone was volunteer, but the cost of getting produce and other supplies at our location was expensive. Typically, we were budgeting $2.50 – $3.50 a day per person for two meals a day. It helped that it was a vegetarian location. Soups, salad, and bread went very far.

We successfully made many meals and had mostly happy visitors. I noticed that my patience wore thin when people would complain over trifling matters and that I didn’t enjoy doing the same thing every day. I felt like Sisyphus many times. Where my work would never end.
From that experience I learned to pursue project-based work that would have a clear start and end to it.

My time at the retreat ended and I had other volunteer projects over that year that led me to the decision that working as a chef was not the role I was looking for.

The primary challenges were that I didn’t feel that the money was there for the level of effort and that I didn’t enjoy dealing with “customers.” Some of the volunteer facilities I was at had a large number of people with very high expectations. Also, some of the other chefs were very challenging to work with.

I filed this information away and continued my search for a better and more fulfilling career.
During my time in college, I had numerous discussions with friends who claimed that those working in the construction industry could make very good money and be among similar-minded individuals.

When my travel ended, I went and looked for a construction job. I had an understanding of mechanical principles and had done very well in math and physics during my education. Also, I had been training physically for some time in CrossFit and felt confident in myself and my abilities.
My first paid construction job was for a company that owned many cranes. They needed people who could run the cranes, drive the trucks carrying counterweights, attach the load to be lifted, signal the operator during blind lifts, and work on the cranes and equipment that would break down.

I was hired on the spot. The company I was working for was family-run and serviced a very large area in a number of resort towns. We worked on a variety of environments ranging from civil construction projects, mining, residential construction, and highway projects.
I knew when I started at this company that I was on the right path.

My education was quick and I moved up rapidly. At this company, I was assigned as a rigger (the person who connects the crane to the load) and once I got my commercial driver’s license, I became an oiler (the person who services the crane and drives the 18-wheelers with crane components). I eventually ran the crane but did not want a sedentary career so did not pursue crane operation.

The company I was with was nonunion and the pay was very poor. I witnessed people get severely injured while on the job. One man lost several fingers. Another had his retinas burned in a welding incident. (He had skipped using a protective hood.) I would typically have one bad close call every month. These would be situations that were completely preventable. This is not typical of the construction industry but it is common in organizations that do not have much oversight or that do not care.

I knew I did not want to make my career at this company and I started to study to take certification tests (paid for out of pocket) to move on to a better company. It is necessary to get started somewhere and poorly-run companies often will give someone who is green (new) a chance to get started.

In the construction industry, there are commonly held certifications and identification. These include OSHA 10/30 (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), Crane Operator Certification (NCCCO), Red Cross First Aid and AED, along with a Transportation Worker ID Card (useful for working at ports, refineries, and fuel racks), and welding certifications.

I would recommend getting the OSHA 10 and 30 as a first step if you are interested in a construction career as they can be obtained for minimal investment of time and energy online. Often you are setting yourself ahead of other candidates by getting this certification as few people are diligent about paperwork and documentation in some areas of the construction industry.
Another suggested step is to get the learner’s permit for a Commercial Driver’s License. This is often simply a written test taken at your state’s driver’s license bureau. This shows that you are interested in learning and motivated.

Most other certifications require a more substantial investment of time and energy to complete.
Working with cranes I find the CDL, NCCCO, and welding certifications to be invaluable.
I got NCCCO certification for advanced rigging and started to network to find my next role.
Almost immediately I was contacted by someone on the east coast who was looking for a rigger for a power plant outage. I explained my skillset and was hired. I was lucky that I was hired by a good company as they paid as they said they would and the work was as described. This is not always the case in construction.

My first powerplant rigging job was to last for a little over two months. In that two-month period, I worked ten hours a day for six days a week. I made in two months what I made in six months working for the previous company. I stayed in a tent in someone’s back yard, and showered at a gym, to save money.

Safety was taken seriously and I was involved in a project working on the turbine deck of a steam power plant. I worked with chain falls and come-a-longs to remove and replace bearings which was something I had not experienced before. The money was impressive (there are better jobs that pay more.) I was making $2,500 a week (including per diem but no benefits) at the time.
I thought about just working on the road and finding work on powerplants but decided to try another path.

I returned to the resort town where I was living and applied for a state job doing construction work. I got the state job and began the most frustrating time in my career journey. I thought the state job would have challenges but the interpersonal issues with that organization were vexing as they wantonly jeopardized the physical safety of people working there. People were promoted based on politics. The people working there were deeply unhappy. Basic occupational safety rules were ignored and highly dangerous activities were carried on with no regard for human life. The culture was corrupt. I did not last long there.

It is my understanding that some improvements have been made since I left and there are some good people that work there but I strongly recommend against working for the state in construction or maintenance as it can be too volatile and they follow the lesser golden rule. Which is that he who has the gold makes the rules.

It should be noted that some states have legislated immunity for governmental actions and this immunity is wielded by leadership within state management communities. It is an ugly and unpleasant experience. Especially when your life is on the line.

Once that employment ended, I continued to work nonunion construction jobs focused on the power generation industry. I worked a number of outages at steam and hydroelectric power plants. Typically, I was making (before tax) between $2,500-$4,000 a week and was working anywhere from 60-to-84 hours a week.

I would be working anywhere in the Continental United States and had worked from coast to coast. I have applied for working in roles outside of the continental United States but have not found one that paid sufficiently for the challenges and risks involved. Some drillers in Alaska were interested, but the pay was not sufficient. I had applied to work in Antarctica but the pay was minimal.

As a result of having my commercial driver’s license (and a clean driving record) I could get work with friends’ companies easily when I was between outages. Typically, I would get paid cash. They appreciated having a reliable driver for a couple of weeks. I would be driving 18-wheelers or dump trucks carrying dirt or transporting vehicles. It was a nice change of pace.

I had a very good spring outage season and had worked at several power plants and a refinery. I was aware that there are union jobs available but had not seriously pursued them. After the outage season I took the summer off to fish and hike.

During this time, I spent time in a western state where I eventually settled. I was out fishing for walleye in my kayak and staying in a tent. It is a wonderful way to live. I had a library 30 minutes away and could see the Milky Way at night.

During this time, I got a call from a union recruiter for a job I had applied for. There are unions for a number of different trades throughout the United States. There are benefits to working as a labor union-affiliated job, but there are also challenges.

Typically, the union leadership is very liberal and by working union, some of my union dues are donated to causes that I do not agree with on moral grounds. Additionally, some unions defend workers who are terrible to work with. We all are familiar with the union teachers who abuse children and yet retain their jobs. In construction, this can mean that someone who jeopardizes your health and safety is kept on, because of union rules.

That said my total compensation is typically double or triple that of what I was making non-union. I receive world-class training. My safety is taken seriously. In my case, I work in a performance-based union so any dangerous or lazy workers do not last. The work I do is typically in high-end facilities that offer intellectually and physically challenging work. Additionally, I have seen the union represent and recover back wages for nonunion workers who were not paid by a criminal employer.

I was organized into the union and as a result of experience that I had already attained working “non-union” I was brought in as an advanced step apprentice. For me, the union is a positive and I am grateful to be a member of the collective bargaining unit. I also take steps to try and change some of the deficiencies that I see and help work as a member to guide the path of the union.
I also get paid to travel cross country and still regularly live in a tent or in the back of my vehicle to get to enjoy nature. And I get a good bit of time off to pursue hobbies and make a good income. I have a couple of side businesses I am starting up, as well.

It is interesting and diverse work that does mean that I go home with grease under my fingernails but it also means that I make very good money and anticipate staying employed for some time even if the economy falters as there is no one else who can do the work that we do.

Available Educational Resources for Further Investigation

(Note: I make no money off these links and offer no warranty on the information supplied in the following sections.)

National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators:
OSHA 10/30 certification can be found by using the search engine of your choice. These can be done online. Some organizations make you take their OSHA 10 or 30 but it will often get you in the door.

To get a Commercial Drivers License, search for “your state” with the words “CDL Manual.” There are schools that will teach you to drive and to my knowledge some states require that you take those classes. I strongly recommend people interested in working in construction get their CDL with HAZMAT endorsement. It is a matter of studying and practice but not many people have that endorsement. The HAZMAT endorsement comes from passing a test and having a clean criminal background.

Welding classes are available in a variety of settings. Local community colleges or welding schools offer a variety of good certifications. Basic certification is 2G and 3G. As your skills improve you can move to more complex welding techniques and more complex work coupons.

Introductory Information to Different Careers

Millwright – fixing and moving machinery, precision measurement.

Carpenter – working with wood, building scaffold, building highways, working in hospitals to maintain structures.

Laborer – working with concrete and literally anything else you can imagine on a construction job, fire watch, trash removal, escorts on secure sites, etc.

Operating Engineers * – truck drivers and crane operators. Requires a CDL and certification.

Pile Driver and Commercial Diver – working on water and installing footings for bridges, piers, and other structures. Commercial diving is incredibly competitive and can be rewarding for the right candidate.

Iron Workers * – Building structures and bridges. Work at heights. Strong sense of brotherhood.

Electrician * – Everything from installing a light switch to power infrastructure engineering. Requires an occupational license.

Pipefitter / Steamfitter * – Moving and installing pipe to move steam. Requires an occupational license.

* These trades are typically near the top of the scale for pay and compensation. Pipefitters typically take 5-6 years of schooling. Electricians can take longer in school. Operating Engineers vary widely with a sweeper truck driver in a metro area making $30/hour on the check but a crane operator in a blue state making very high wages.

Interesting Tests for Working Construction

Edison Electrical Institute – POSS / MASS – These tests are the bar to pass to work in the energy industry working at a power plant.

JWR Adds:  One of my good friends is a union longshoreman.  Now in his late 50s, he has risen to the level of “Supercargo”. That is the top of the pyramid in his trade. He gets to pick his own hours and his pay is extremely high. But he laments that his union is joined at the hip with the Democrat party. He finds that very frustrating. Most of his unionized co-workers are gun owners, and many are also pro-life, yet they still consistently vote for Democrats. When he points out this contradictory behavior, they have few meaningful excuses other than those candidates are “pro-union.” Some of his political discussions with his co-workers get very lively!