A tradesman's life for me?
December 1, 2011 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to think I'd like to learn a trade, but I don't know which. I have no experience and have been a graphics guy (half corporate, half freelance) since graduating college with a BA in psychology (I'm 37 now). I really like the idea of making something, of being able to fix things, of having a skill that is useful in its own right, and of not sitting in front of a computer all day. I'm willing to go to school and/or apprentice, but I'd like to have the possibility of making decent money (>$60k) after doing it for a 2-3 years.

I've browsed a bit on the Occupational Outlook Handbook and pulled out a couple that looked interesting:

Medical Equipment Repair: Seems to have very good prospects and the possibility of making good money, but I don't think it's really a skill I could use outside of repairing medical equipment.

Small Engine Repair: Unfortunately, doesn't seem like you can make much money, but I find the idea of being able to fix real, useful stuff very exciting.

I'd love some first-hand suggestions and thoughts. I'm just starting to poke around, so I'm open to anything.
posted by SampleSize to Work & Money (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Plumbing? Seems to be a pretty lucrative field right now, at least where I am. Not many new plumbers but there is a market. Also an extremely useful skill.

My boyfriend's stepfather is an electrician and makes decent money, but I'm not sure it's quite 60,000. It's got the added bonus of being able to do elecrical work on your own house.

I know several carpenters/contractors who made big bucks building mcMansions in New Jersey, but other than them I don't know any who make more than 60,000 (including my boyfriend and his father). I also wouldn't go into welding/masonry if you want to make at least 60,000.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:51 PM on December 1, 2011

Electrician? Shop Class as Soulcraft is an interesting memoir about the value of knowing a trade, and he talks in detail about being an electrician and a motorcycle repairman. He mentioned that it pays well, but I don't know how well.

Another one to consider might be bike mechanic, but that's unlikely to bring in the big bucks.
posted by danceswithlight at 2:55 PM on December 1, 2011

I suggest welding. It satisfies your financial criteria and you can also use it for all kinds of creative or practical purposes. If you specialize in certain types of welding or materials, it increases your financial opportunities.

You're already an artist. What do you think about sculpture? Metal sculpture?

On preview, you can most certainly make $60,000 a year welding, especially in media like stainless steel, aluminum, chromoly...
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:56 PM on December 1, 2011

I don't know about making more than 60k doing most trades, unless you have a lot more than 2 years experience. CAD/CAM qualified machinists seem to be in high demand. My suggestion would be talk to a trade union rep or a manufacturers rep in the aerospace/heavy equipment/speciatly fab business and ask them what technicians they need and can't find.

In my experience the very act of learning how to use tools in one trade gives a boost up in the next to learn. That is to say that learning how to use tools effectively is the fundamental part of any trade and the tools aren't all that different for most trades-I am speaking as a successful engineer that paid for college by working on cars, I seem to have an easier time than most picking up DIY skills because i grew up using tools with my dad (who was a farmer, heavy desiel mechanic and a CPA-successful in all three-he believed in having a fall back career). The hard part will be learning the tool skills and viewing how to manipulate your world through that than any esoteric technical skill that any individual specialization will require.
posted by bartonlong at 3:02 PM on December 1, 2011

This 2005 Rolling Stone interview with Jack White kind of made me want to run off and join the upholstery trade.
posted by argonauta at 3:03 PM on December 1, 2011

Diesel mechanic?
posted by monotreme at 3:05 PM on December 1, 2011

Kamikazegopher, I am absolutely not trying to pick apart your suggestion, but where's your data for welders making that much money? I know that some materials can be quite expensive but it doesn't appear that the money is reflected in earning potential/
posted by pintapicasso at 3:07 PM on December 1, 2011

Ah, shoot, I referenced the wrong article. Here's Jack White's ode to the upholsterer's life, from The Believer.
posted by argonauta at 3:17 PM on December 1, 2011

Commercial HVAC. How fast you get to $60,000 is going to depend on the area you're in, but my ex had a job waiting for him to graduate, was making ~50,000 before the 5 year mark, and ~70,000 before he hit 10 years in - in a not-particularly high-paying area of the country. Good luck!
posted by faineant at 3:22 PM on December 1, 2011

Power line technician: Like being an electrician, but arguably more exciting and better paid. Excellent if you like to be outside.

I don't think small engine repair is a great long term career. Small engines are being replaced more and more by electric motors (think lawnmowers) and other small engines are being made so cheaply in China that they aren't worth repairing.
posted by ssg at 3:29 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

My woodworking hobby has grown over five years to the point where it could replace my regular income. I enjoy the challenge of finish carpentry, inlay, and making furniture pieces that customers seem to really enjoy owning and using. Hours spent don't always equal money, but as I've gotten better and more experienced, the hours seem less and the money seems more. Smaller pieces sell faster, too. It's cool learning what wood can do.

Plus, I now have an excuse to own all kinds of really neat tools.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:33 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's the one trade that crosses well between traditional domestic and industrial applications PLUS will be in even more demand as people start putting more solar panels on their roofs. Our local electrician (a gay woman in a small rural town) makes easily >$80k pa. It is arguably also cleaner than plumbing or welding and has less health issues than carpentry as you are not dealing with fine airborne and potentially cancerous particles that some timbers give off.

In our neck of the woods, an electrical apprenticeship takes 4 years and doesn't pay all that well until you've qualified. Then the money is excellent.

Alternatively, if you want to earning more sooner and without the strict training code, upholstery combined with furniture repair can be self-taught and doesn't require a licence.
posted by Kerasia at 4:13 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Beware unions. Especially for electrical or plumbing might be hard to get going in the field without accommodating to the union somehow, and who you know might matter.

For sure, I don't know what I'm talking about - but that's a concern I would have. Maybe someone more knowledgeable can flesh this out.
posted by Kevin S at 4:42 PM on December 1, 2011

How about locksmith? Here are interesting threads:


Thanks to the other replier for the idea of lineman. Here's a link on that:
posted by markhu at 5:00 PM on December 1, 2011

posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 PM on December 1, 2011

For money, check out this
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 PM on December 1, 2011

I'd caution you to thoroughly research the upholstery gig before proceeding. A friend of mine went this route and found that fewer and fewer people get things reupholstered nowadays. Furniture is increasingly seen as disposable.
posted by Wordwoman at 5:43 PM on December 1, 2011

I have a cousin who is a tool and die maker and he earns the most money of all the cousins ($100Kish). Including us rubes who graduated university with $50K student load debts. Caveat: he started just out of high school and is now in his early 40s. So, $100K is after 20+ years.

Making $60K after 2-3 years is likely unrealistic. These are the average hourly wages for trades in Canada. I don't know what you bill as a designer, but when I was working freelance it was 3 to 4 times these hourly wages. The difference is, of course, there were fewer billable hours.

Re: unions. The most obvious impact of them is that if you are protected by one you earn a higher wage.
posted by looli at 8:49 PM on December 1, 2011

Seconding electrician and/or HVAC. Not only can you make good $$, there's an endless opportunity to make EXTRA $$ from side jobs, and your education will pay for itself in not having to hire people when you need to fix your own home.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:04 PM on December 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for some good directions to explore. None of them are tickling me the way small engine repair does...but it's pretty clear to me that that would be a poor career choice. I guess I just liked the idea of having skills I could do cool, fun stuff with...besides just making a living.
posted by SampleSize at 1:12 PM on December 2, 2011

A bit off base, but what about becoming a barber? Sometimes they become wealthy....
posted by rumbles at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2011

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