College, Interrupted-One Man's Skilled-Trade Journey
While college is a great first choice for some, one man proves you can start a career in the trades first.
Jason Becker is happy to talk about his winding path to the construction trades and how well it worked out for him. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, but the opportunities that opened up to him are not unique– he just worked hard to position himself well.
“In some areas of the country being a contractor might be looked down upon. You’re riding down the road, and you see a guy holding a sign for road construction, or you come across that dirty, messy pickup truck and it may not look like a career,” said Becker. He advises people considering the trades to look deeper to see what they are really about. “I know many people who have worked in the trades and have done well financially. That’s because they always saw their chosen trade as a conscious career choice and stuck with it.”
According to Becker, workers in the field, and those who employ a skilled workforce, the trades are necessary for building anything. “The trades need people who are talented, smart, dedicated, and willing to learn. It’s a job where you can go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and feel proud of what you do every single day.”
How I Got to the Trades
“I took your typical drafting class and shop classes in high school. I always wanted to be an architect more than a contractor, but I always had that hands-on ability in me,” said Becker. “My father was a carpenter, but I was on my way to becoming an architect. My parents wanted me to go to college.”
While Becker’s father took the path of carpentry into the trades, Becker's path into the trades was through a carpenters' union pre-apprenticeship program in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. But it wasn’t easy.
After one year of college, Becker started his family early, leading him to seek full-time employment immediately. It was a kickstart. He found the pre-apprenticeship program and started out in a group of 50. It was eight hours a day, five days a week – with a $35 gas stipend and no compensation for 90 days.
“I worked at a Coca-Cola bottler loading trucks up at night,” said Becker. “I’d go home and sleep for four hours and then get up for the trip to Elk Grove and do it all again. When I was at Elk Grove (at the training facility), I knew this was important and I was serious about the training. I wanted to be successful at it,” said Becker. “There were a lot of young people who weren’t that serious. By the end, there were only 12 people left in my class who made it through the pre-apprentice training. The people running the training program were looking for a maturity level and a commitment from the people in the program. If you showed that, you were allowed to be in the union.”
Becker went back for a week of training in Elk Grove every three months for four years. That training included layout, exterior trim, interior trim, stairs I, stairs II, rafters I and rafters II. “It was a deep class with a lot of math and a lot of hands-on. And they were strict – if you missed one day they set you back three months and you had to catch up with another class. My calculation was that missing one day was a $3,000 loss, so I never missed a day.”
The foundation of Becker’s point of view is that a trade education lasts forever. Sure, there’s new technology to incorporate, but the basics of planning, drawing, organizing the work day and building a quality project have not changed. And those basics will never change.
“It’s a skill and no one can take that away from you,” says Becker. “Young people who don’t know what direction they’re headed yet: Are they hands on? Are they creative? Are they hard workers? Can they get up early in the morning and go to work consistently? If they can, the reward (in the trades) is big.”
A trade career offers a variety of avenues to pursue. Across North America, many well-respected contractors offer an opportunity to do great work and to advance into a leadership position. But you needed to know the basics first.
“In the apprenticeship program I went through, they made us do everything old school first,” said Becker. “So, if you ever had a problem, you could back yourself out of that problem because you knew the context of the original goal. Everyone on the site needs to know how everything fits together and the strategy behind it. It’s important to peel back that technology a bit to show what’s underneath.”
Today’s technical advances may minimize some people's problem-solving potential because they never learned the old-school method. As further proof, Becker cites a Bosch associate on his team who learned the building process traditionally. He worked for a contractor who was strict about quality, to the point where he would make workers tear out something they had just built if it didn’t meet his exacting standards.
“On the residential side, there are a lot of contractors who are building beautiful homes. You can see quality. Don’t be afraid to go on the job site and connect with them,” said Becker. “On the commercial side, you can see the volume of work in places like Nashville, Seattle, and Chicago. Things are changing and evolving in favor of the contractor and that workforce. There’s so much emphasis on safety – hydration, strict hardhat rules, and safety glasses rules. Hearing protection. The trades are benefiting because everyone is safer on that job site.”
Making the Decision
“College isn’t for everyone,” a mantra often heard in trade halls today. But that’s not Becker’s story. “That’s really where I wanted to go, but I wasn’t mature enough for it at the time. I had to alter my plans early on and change my direction. I believe I would have done well if I had gone down the college path, but I got into the trades and treated it like a career from the beginning.” He suggests that if young trade professionals take their chosen field seriously, find and listen to mentors, and work hard – they can go anywhere they want in a market that doesn’t have enough qualified people joining its ranks. “I’ve been able to work for two industry-leading tool manufacturers in positions that would normally require a degree,” he said. “You need to be open, excited and engaged. Not only is being a contractor a great career, there’s more to it. You can keep going.”
Becker has seen firsthand the enormous deficit in the number of skilled tradespeople coming into the market. When he worked at Stabila, a European manufacturer of levels, electronic measuring tools, folding rules, and tape measures, he had the opportunity to present an award to a young apprentice mason on TV in Germany. During the lead-up to the program, he learned about the strict education people in the trades receive in that country. The end result is young apprentices coming out of trade education programs who are ready to undertake complex tasks on any job site.
Today, Becker is the training department manager for the Bosch brand in North America. He and his team of three associates travel throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia Teaching Bosch associates, distributors and users about the company’s products and value to the trades. His hands-on experience using tools on the job site is the experience he draws from every day.
From his start as a residential carpenter to his position as team lead on the contractor side, to project superintendent, to company owner, to marketing positions with two professional power tool makers, Jason Becker has experienced a more diverse a career than many college-educated professionals. He’s managed large-scale crews on projects employing contractors and sub-contractors across electrical, plumbing and building trades. He’s run his own company building houses and overseen small commercial buildouts using his own crew. And he’s always been in demand.
“When I made the decision to leave construction on the job site, I never had to leave the construction industry. I had a chance to understand the industry from the manufacturer side while using what I learned working as a contractor.”
Jason Becker’s career in the construction industry has come full circle. Despite his plans to become an architect, he ended up building the projects instead of designing them. Even running the crews, he was still capable of doing the work. Today, he can walk onto any job site and take up where he left off as a hands-on team leader and company owner. In the words of Herbert Spencer: “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”
5 months ago, in Personal Journeys by Jason Burns