Experience: Often, It’s What You Get When You Didn’t Get What You Wanted

by Coach Rob Balfanz

When I look back at my childhood, I watched my father work extremely hard to make a living, to make ends meet. Watching this daily routine, I often found myself saying, “I hope I never have to do that.” He would get up at 4:30 a.m. and off he went, day in and day out like clockwork.

As some of you may know, my father is an operative mason, which is a skilled worker who builds by laying units of substantial material such as stone or brick.

As I grew up, I would go to work with him in the summers, on the weekends and over holiday breaks. I never really thought much about it being a long-term thing, just something that I was doing to make some extra money at the time.

Over time, as I worked for him more and more, I began to realize it was hard work, very demanding, extremely physical and done in all types of conditions. 

As I grew older, my responsibilities increased and so did the hours. I recall one very memorable project I was on in Chicago while I was attending community college, just before leaving for Purdue University. My father’s company was working at Loyola University, on the Nun Chapel.  It was a massive limestone restoration project – very detailed, dangerous and situated on the windy lakefront. I remember I wanted to run the job as the foreman. Instead, I was gifted the opportunity to be the head laborer, responsible for all the journeymen and their needs.

What I didn’t know at the time, is that there is a difference between a Tuckpointer and a Bricklayer. The main difference is not the work they do, but rather the mortar that they want to work with. Here is why this point matters to me, and what I learned from the experience:

I sent the wrong bucket of mud (too runny) up the rope to a bricklayer when I should have sent the other bucket of mud up the ladder (more set up). The bricklayer knocked the bucket over the scaffold, and I was then covered in runny mortar (followed by a few choice words). It was at that point that I realized just how much experience matters. I wanted to be the foreman; however, I may not have been ready for the role because I lacked the experience.

My father knew exactly what he was doing –  he was allowing me the opportunity to gain the experience, regardless of what I wanted. 

Shortly after graduating from Purdue, I went to work at US Steel in Gary, IN as the Coke and Chemical Laboratory Manager. I was issued greens (fire retardant clothing), a blue helmet (blue represented management), steel toe shoes and a bunch of other PPE (for safety), and thought to myself, what is all of this? I am going to be working in a Chemical Laboratory as a Manager. Well, as it turns out, based on my experiences, they needed a Production Foreman and knew I had some experience in the trades. So, I was pulled out of the lab and sent to work the back-turns (3-11 and midnights only) working in the Coal Handling Department of the Coke & Chemical Plant.

At the time, I wondered who I upset in a former life because it was not what I had signed up for. After working in this role for a while, I asked our coordinator when I was going to run the masons or work in maintenance? He laughed and said, “Get back to work Computer Foreman,” (that was my nickname back then, as I graduated college and started working there as a manager). Fast-forward a few years, I eventually oversaw production, maintenance, and served both as a coordinator – but I never got to the masons.

Suddenly, one day I received a call to meet with the manager at the Coke Battery area. He informed me that there had been a change and they needed me to take over the masons. Immediately, I thought to myself, I could have done this a few years ago…did it have to take this long?

It turns out they had a plan for me all along.

I did not get to spend much time in the laboratory, they put someone else in that role. I did not get to run the masons right away like I wanted, because they had someone in the role for 26 years, and his father for 30 years before him. I realized they were grooming me for the long haul, to take over, only after I had the experience. But it was not just experiencing being a laborer, a college graduate or serving as a mason – it was experience in the overall process of Coke Making and Technology. I eventually went on to run the masons, rebuilding the Coke Batteries at US steel and helped run both production and maintenance as a coordinator/superintendent.

Lessons Learned

So, what is the lesson learned from my childhood and young adult years? Sometimes, experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. This was a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around at first. I always thought that if I learned a little bit about something, I could figure out the rest and do “ok.” But what I’ve discovered is that while it may work for some things in life, it doesn’t always work for everything, especially when there is science involved.

How does this relate to the remodeling and construction workforce? Our industry demands more smart, passionate, hungry, aggressive, competitive and coachable workers enter the trades and continue to build upon the work that has already begun. Our industry will continue to demand the need of the novice to the expert in the coming years.

College may not be for everyone, just like the trades may not be for everyone. However, the skilled trades do not have to be considered a Plan B, or a fall back if other plans don’t work out.

The skilled trades can be considered a Plan A and be a place where people start their careers, right out of high school, college or trade school. And roles can evolve, from journeyman to leadership and entrepreneurship, or many other roles.

It’s important to realize that a little hard work, grit and dirt can lead to memorable experiences, solid relationships, numerous accomplishments, and more importantly, to a great living as the earning potential is significantly higher than many people realize.

How VSI Can Help

The VSI offers a free Installer Trainee Program. From this position, a trainee can proactively seek employment with subcontractors, general contractors, builders, developers, installation companies and more. The next step is becoming a certified installer, trainer, owner/operator, sales or management.

The key is realizing that everyone has an identity, and there is a path through the VSI for everyone. The skilled trades offer security, stability, possibility, accessibility, a challenging environment – and it’s fun too. Skilled trades have a purpose – we have a seat at the table and we all deserve to be here.

If you know someone who may benefit from reading this blog post, please share. You can also check out our programs. Or if you have a similar story, let’s chat: accounting@polymericexteriors.fahlgrendigital.com.

To your success,

Coach Rob Balfanz