7 Questions With Matt Risinger And Jordan Smith
Two of the biggest influencers in the skilled trades today are Matt Risinger and Jordan Smith.
If you're interested in a career in the skilled trades, you'll want to know what Jordan and Matt have to say, as they both have worked their way up to become owners of their own companies and YouTube sensations. I sat down with them recently to talk to them about their experiences and gain some insight on how they first entered the skilled trades, how they grew their successful skilled trade careers and what that might mean for Generation T.
Before we dive into the Q&A, here's a bit of background on these skilled tradesmen.
Jordan Smith works now as a builder in Austin, TX. He got his start in the trades through Matt Risinger, but his original training is as a welding engineer.
Smith spent 10 years in the oil and gas industry ”programming robots to weld stuff together,” and he was also very involved with AWS, the American Welding Society.
Two and a half years ago, he had what he calls an “early mid-life crisis” and decided with his wife to “quit the engineering and management and start building houses.”
While Jordan was trying to get his new career off the ground, he met Matt Risinger, who offered Jordan a job during their first conversation, and he was “blown away” by Risinger's offer and accepted it. He has spent the last few years working with Matt and “learning from one of the greats in the field.”
He has just now broken off on his own with his wife Veronica to follow their dream of working together to build houses with their venture Smith House & Company.
Jordan is very passionate about dispelling existing myths in the skilled trades. One myth is “if you're not smart, you go into the trades, and nothing could be further from the truth. There's a lot of super-smart guys who enjoy working with their hands and enjoy building and creating something.”
Smith has his own YouTube channel that he started about a year ago, where he provides building and fine craftsmanship tips and shares his expertise through tool reviews, comparisons, and how-to welding videos.
Matt Risinger, who now owns his own building firm called Risinger & Co. and hosts his own YouTube channel called The Build Show (which also features Jordan Smith occasionally), grew up watching This Old House and became fascinated by building processes. He grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and every summer in junior high and high school worked construction through a church program, which involved remodeling existing houses in the inner city.
Risinger says he always enjoyed building but didn't really know anyone in the industry. He went to school for an engineering degree, and when he graduated, he found a job for a national builder in Washington, D.C. that was hiring for an assistant superintendent position. “Having worked construction all those summers, I thought, 'This job sounds amazing, I want to do this.'” He applied and ended up getting hired in 1995 and built houses for many years.
In 2001, he moved to Portland, Oregon, which was the year of the national mold crisis. He worked for a builder in Portland who got sued by several clients, and this got him really thinking about the science of how houses are put together. He became interested in building science at this time, and it's evolved to become a big part of his YouTube channel. In 2005, he moved to Texas and started his home building company.
The YouTube channel was his way of marketing his business, and now, almost 15 years later, both he and Jordan have growing thriving channels.
“I quickly realized even as a junior high student, after a full day of work doing drywall, decks or plumbing, you had a huge sense of satisfaction. At the beginning of the day, you had a front porch with a big hole in it with some rotted deck boards, but at the end of the day, it was safe and it was repaired. In one day's work. That sense of satisfaction still carries on to what I'm doing today.”
1. What are your thoughts on a family apprenticeship vs. a larger home building business? Which one makes more sense for someone entering the skilled trades?
Jordan: I think you can learn stuff from both. I came in and worked my first job in the home building trade, [which] was for Matt's small company with a team of 15 guys. It's a small, intimate team. But I've also worked in welding for multibillion-dollar global corporations.
The big guys in a bigger sense of the trades will give you a lot of training that might not be there [with smaller companies]. For example, in welding, the big guys have a lot of liability. They want to be very efficient. They want to do things the right way. They have to do things the right way. You come in under a very rigorous training program (with the big guys), and you've trained the right way to do things.
With a smaller welding outfit, where you're doing normal equipment repair or you're just the guy with a pickup truck welding stuff together and you hire on a helper, they don't have that attention to detail. But then on the smaller side what you have is you get to have your hands get dirty in everything.
If you're a kid coming out of school, I think you need to work for both. I think you need a good healthy dose working for guys like Matt who say “do this today, do that tomorrow" and a big broad view of what it takes to build a home or what it takes to run a welding company on a grassroots scale, but then you should also work for the big guys to learn how the big businesses work.
Matt: I got my start in the big builder production business. They were building 10k-13k houses a year and hiring 50 people like me every year or more. And so, they had a very specific training program for a whole year where I worked underneath a superintendent. Twice a month, I had a training class to go to for a full day with a final exam. It was a great training ground for me to get a good background in the business. I learned a ton from those guys even though I don't build the same house now that I did 20 years ago. Getting started with a big company was great because I got a regimented program, and some of those guys that were my early superintendents I still speak to this day.
2. For someone interested in the trades, but not sure what field they want, any tips on finding one that matches your interest/personality or other factors?
Matt: Let's say you're a recent high school graduate and you're interested in getting in the trades, first look for if you can for a trades program that's local to your area. One great thing about Texas is that we still have high school trade programs. Several electricians who are my favorite electricians on the job we're hired right out of high school after completing an electrician training program at Cedar Park High School in Texas. It's a great place for local employers to connect with good workers.
Not everyone has access to that, but what you do have access to is your network of people who might be in the trades already. If I was talking to a young person, I'd tell them to talk to everyone they know who is a plumber, an electrician or an HVAC guy that they have a personal connection to. See if you can get some time with them to ask them about their job and what they like. Do an informational interview, which is kind of an old-school term, but I don't know how many times I've been asked for an informational interview about what I do for a living, and before the end of the interview, I ask the person doing the interview, well what are you doing now? Why don't you come work for me? I mean that's basically the story with me and Jordan. Jordan, when I met him 2-1/2-3 years ago now, it was at a home show. He was asking me questions about my job and how I got started on it, and before the end of the interview, I thought this is a guy I would love to have on my team, and he may not have had 30 years as a home building background, but he had all the other things that I cared about. He had good drive, good initiative, and good communication skills. He was inquisitive. He had all the things I needed.
I think most tradesmen out there want good people. They don't care that you don't have 10 or 20 years of experience. They want young people who are motivated, who are going to work hard, who are going to learn and show up on time and who can communicate. If you can do those things and you get an interview with someone, you'd be surprised how many of those turn into a job interview where you think you're interviewing them, but by the end, they're interviewing you, and they want you to start next week.
Jordan: I agree about the trade schools. I'm a big fan of education. You want to be educated. Plumbers, electricians, welders and all of the people I love working with and will hire over and over again are the problem solvers. The more life experiences you have, the more education you have, the better you are at solving problems and the better you are at solving problems. You can educate yourself in several ways through trade schools, on the job training and even just by picking up books and reading them.
3. What if kids are not sure whether they're cut out for skilled trades? Are there charitable or no-obligation options out there to try it out before making a commitment?
Matt: You know if you're cut out for the skilled trades based on your desire and inclination for mechanical and hobby-type projects. If you like to understand how cars work and you want to get under the sink when the plumber comes over to fix your parents' sink, you're probably mechanically minded. For me, as a junior high kid, once I got onto a job site and was able to work with my hands and do some of those things, I really enjoyed it and loved that sense of satisfaction. If that's you, whether it's high school woodworking class or a home project, there's a good chance that a career in the building industry and the trades may be right for you.
Jordan: Trades are probably the most try-before-you-buy vocation that there is. You can't pretend to be a doctor before you're a doctor. You can follow them around and see what they do and get a general sense of their day, but you don't really get to see what it's like to do surgery on somebody that was dying before. But in the trades, Matt just gave that story when he was in junior high and high school. That porch had a hole in it, and he spent the day volunteering, and at the end, it was completed and it was safe. And he realized, "Hey, I want to do this for a living." There's Habitat for Humanity that you can volunteer for, every house of worship in town has some sort of volunteer service where they're working on people's houses. There are hobby welders in every neighborhood. Go find somebody who's making blue sparks in the evenings, and ask them if you can play around on their machine. It's a really easy way to say “Do I like this?” before you jump into it. And even if you jump into it and find it's not for you, it's not like you've spent the last 8 years getting an MD degree and you're like “Eh, I don't think I like this.”
Matt: Yes, there's a low barrier to entry for sure in terms of finding a job. Even doing a summertime type job where you're the low man on the totem pole can really give you a good understanding of what it's like to be on a job site. So, if you can find a builder or a tradesman and say, “Hey, can I do cleanup work for you for 10 bucks an hour?” even if it's for 2 weeks, you're going to get a good sense of what their job's like.
4. Is an apprenticeship a 4-year commitment like college? Can it be interrupted?
Jordan: From a character standpoint, if you start something, you need to push it all the way through. Set whatever your goal is, make it bite-size, make it attainable, and set milestones so you can stop, pull your head up and say, am I doing what I want to be doing? If yes, keep going, and if no, redirect.
Matt: I think one of the benefits of the construction world is that very often, people have a life event and for a period of time need to do something different, and that's the beauty, typically, of most apprenticeship-type programs. They're not so formal that you have to do these steps in this order and in this time frame. I have several master plumbers, master electricians on my jobs that have had other careers, done other things and been in the armed services for a while, and all those other things lead to a more well-rounded person on the job site.
5. What are three things you see in young people that will help them succeed in the field?
Matt: As a builder looking for young people to join my organization, I'm looking for people who are good communicators with a wide range of people. One of the things I love about home building is one minute I'm talking to a guy digging the ditch and the next talking to the CEO who's building the house. Another is problem-solving ability. That's a hard one because you can't take a class to be a better problem solver. There's no textbook to consult. There's no answer key. Being able to have some examples of this during an interview with somebody is helpful too.
Jordan: Along with your communication, part of that communication I would say is just humility. You're able to communicate clearly if you get yourself and your ego out of the way. So often, we see good tradespeople, especially younger guys, [get into a mentality] where they have one solution in mind. But there's more than one way to accomplish something.
In the trades, especially, you are rarely taking a project from beginning to end. On a job site, everybody is interdependent on one another, and that good communication bed is a must for a successful project. And it all hinges on people being humble enough to listen to other people's opinions.
Character, in general, is important. Show up on time, and do what you say you're going to do. But it cuts both ways. It's both doing it, and it's about thinking before you talk so that when you say you can do something, you can actually do it.
6. What might you say to someone new who is feeling overwhelmed and feeling like they need the biggest truck and the most expensive tools while starting out? Do expensive tools make me a better worker?
Jordan: No. Absolutely not. I am 37 years old, and I have never bought a new vehicle in my life. And I'm not going to say I never will, but I may never. It has not impeded my success in the least. It's a common misconception.
I'm a bass player, and the thing we say is, the act doesn't make the player. It doesn't matter how good your guitar is, how good your drills are, how good your hammers are or how good your car is. If you don't have the skills to do the work, you are not going to accomplish good work. There's no amount of buying [to help you succeed]. Especially in the trades, you can't fake it.
You've got to have the skills to pull it off.
That said, there are tools that make you more efficient and make you more profitable as a tradesman. And those are smart tools. But you still can't buy your way into having these skills. Spend your money on doing the work and upgrade tools as the tools clearly hold you back.
Matt: Ultimately, experience is gained by time in the field and not by a particular tool or number of things you own. Don't let all those things scare you. Buy what you need when you need it, and buy the best tool you can at that point. I remember one of the first tools I owned was a Sawzall because I was doing demo work on old houses, and so I thought gosh, I need the Sawzall first. I just recently replaced it, and it was 27, 28 years old. A tool that lasted three decades for me. Over time, my tool inventory has gone up as my skills have gone up, but I never tried to buy anything all at once.
7. How viable is the construction market? Do people need to travel to find work?
Matt: I would say there are lots of opportunities locally. Unless you're in a rural setting, every major metro area in America has worked within 50 miles of it that's good, well-paying work. I don't think you need to travel a lot to find it.
Jordan: I agree. It's cyclical. It has its ups and downs. People who are excellent at their trade, even in downtimes, they're not hurting for work.
To find out more about the amazing things Generation T is doing for the skilled trade industry, check out Generation T on Instagram at @iamgenerationt.