My coffee mug tells me, "never, never, never give up." Is it corny? Categorically. Does it keep me going when I hit a snag at work? Yes. But what helps me even more than my mug (and the caffeine therein) is the knowledge that I work in a field which rewards my efforts. There will always be another pathway open to me if my interests shift and my skill set grows in concert. The ability to develop and expand one’s niche within an industry is more critical than ever before, as we live in a time when the only certain variable is that the show will go on, with or without us.
The analogy of a corporate "ladder" is as outmoded for the electrical field as it is for many careers today. There are so many possible avenues that the analogy of a tree is more accurate: a primary trunk with a few large limbs that fork into numerous smaller branches. Where the proverbial career ladder would suffice to represent the trunk of the tree (“summer helper”, apprentice, journeyman, master, foreman, etc.), it doesn’t account for the different opportunities and choices that lay before a tradesperson who has worked his or her way to the top.
At the time I spoke with him, Tony Wagner had recently transitioned into a Project Manager & Estimator role at Hunt Electric. Having begun his time in electrical with the illustrious title of “summer helper” (a step below the rank of an official apprentice) Tony had worked his way through each of the industry’s usual positions, and explained how each step required he use his head a little more and his hands a little less.
Tony mentioned a few different things that helped throughout his career, two of them being:
- The resources he had access to.
- His willingness to say “yes” to new opportunities.
He noted that access to classes through IBEW & NECA were instrumental in preparing him for different stages in his career; singling out a Project Management course he took as something that is helping him succeed in his current role. Tony emphasized his willingness to say “yes” when opportunity came his way the other big part of his success. Validating this insight, Tony was not the only person that told me this.
The more we talked, the more I realized Dave LaPointe was destined to go into the electrical field. Long time owner of Foster Electric, Dave started professionally in the electrical field when he was 21. He explained to me that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all in the electrical field. “It felt natural to go into the electrical field,” Dave told me. The family legacy has carried on to Dave’s son, who works (unsurprisingly) as an electrician.
So how about his advice? Seek out and accept opportunities. “Look for opportunity, and don’t be afraid to take something on... Even if you don’t know you could do it, approach it as if ‘I can do it’ and if it doesn’t work out, you can always back off.” Once again, great advice, but how could Dave “back off”?
One of the many great things about a career in the electrical field is the flexibility it offers. Dave assured me that if an electrician has up to date licenses, “it’s low risk (to take an opportunity) because you always have something to fall back on.”- a piece of advice Dave’s father gave to him.
In fact, the biggest risk that you can take in the electrical field (beside ignoring your safety) is venturing off to start a company of your own– a choice Don Hameister, owner of H&G Electric, ultimately opted for. Hameister started young and worked his way through all of the natural steps– Journeyman, Master Electrician, then Foreman. Once an electrician reaches Foreman status the metaphorical tree starts to branch out, and the opportunities to define your role in the industry come into sight. Upon climbing to this point, Don considered opening up a contracting business of his own. Opening a business is no small decision; when I asked Don how he made the choice, he told me there were two main variables he took into account:
- Waiting any longer would’ve resulted in his opportunity vanishing.
- He believed he had both the knowledge & connections necessary to succeed.
The gamble (so far as it really was a gamble) paid off, and Don now enjoys a job that, while still not easy, affords him the opportunity to make the calls he believes in.
So what was the advice Don shared? “Listen to the people around you,” he told me. Stay open-minded to advice of any shape or size, then separate the wheat from the chaff. Even after Don had found success, the advice to keep an open ear still served him. “I wasn’t afraid to listen to the guys working for me,” Don told me, crediting his leadership as a foreman to this ability.
This isn’t a foreign piece of advice, as it’s the same advice Nate Nord, master electrician, spoke of in our article highlighting the Importance of a Journeyworker’s Card. If people like Nate Nord and Don Hameister can learn from the people they lead, certainly you and I can, too.
The electrical field offers not only room to breathe, but also room to grow- and branch out. Each step along the way brings new challenges, and that ability to revel in the change and challenge is what ultimately draws out the best in those who rise to the occasion.