Switching from the academic track to trade work in your 30s
October 24, 2019 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I've been unemployed for a while, and lately people have started asking me to work on handyman-type projects for them. I seem to be good at it, and I'm considering whether I should try to pursue that kind of work more seriously. Have you, or has anyone you know, gone into this kind of work? I'd like to get a sense of what I'm looking at in practical terms.

I've wanted to be a handyman since I was like 15. I wanted to take carpentry classes in community college when I was 17, but my family discouraged me because they thought I was "too smart for that."

My 20s were rough until I went back to school and started doing well. I graduated last year. I did very well academically, and was sort of primed to keep up with academia. My old professors still want me to go to grad school and so on. I loved school, but I found it very stressful; on the other hand, I was constantly fascinated by everything I learned, and on the whole I found the experience stimulating.

I briefly worked at an office job after graduating, and HATED IT. In part of terrible mismanagement and high pressure, but also because I felt totally out of place. Business casual felt uncomfortable, in a literal and metaphorical sense. When I quit, the CEO was like "you should stick with academia."

I've been unemployed for a while thanks to a nervous breakdown earlier this year. I've really struggled trying to get into office-type work again. Now that my mental health is getting better, what I've jumped at is the chance to do manual labor. I'm not saying I'm Mr. Experience, since all I've really done so far was help build a deck, do some heavy yard work, and design and build some garden beds from landscape timbers (I mean, and years of fixing stuff around the house). But I've been consistently complimented on the quality and accuracy of my work, and I enjoy the work so far. The guy I built the deck with told me I seem to have a real talent. The other day, someone offered to pay me to build something for them, and I went ahead and priced out materials for 5 different design -- this is after barely being able to finish a magazine article all year.

On the other hand, I still worry that I'm just excited about the novelty of this work. I worry about missing intellectual stimulation. I wonder if I'm too old to get started doing this kind of thing. I have the upper body strength of a damp willow branch. I wonder about dealing with clients, getting steady work, and all that.

On the other hand, I worry about publish-or-perish. I worry about internal politics. I worry about extreme job insecurity, adjuncting, and high stress for low pay. Or just being in an office environment where I don't feel like I mesh.

I'll say this much: lately I've struggled to envision a future for myself on any kind of office or academic track, but the prospect of doing this kind of work actually gives me a sense of hope. That could just be where I am right now, and I don't want to get my hopes up too much. But like I said, this has been my maybe-unrealistic fantasy since I was a teenager.

I'd love to hear from anyone with perspective on this kind of work, especially anyone who has any idea what it's like to transition into this kind of work in your 30s. I'm not necessarily looking for anyone to tell me if I should or shouldn't, I'd just like to know more about what I'm considering; knowing full well that even if I want it to happen, it might still not pan out.

posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Work & Money (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It’s ok to be excited about the novelty of your work. Maybe you also like that you feel appreciated for making things for other people, and that seems perfectly reasonable too.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:08 PM on October 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: So I’m 30. I spent years getting an anth degree long after I wanted one because surgeries delayed my graduation and I was determined to see it through. My great love wasn’t handyman-ing but plants and on a whim (and my mother’s encouragement) I did not do grad school but now work in a garden center. It’s hard work. And I’m the happiest I’ve been my entire life. There is something about working with your hands and making something that is intensely fulfilling to some of us. If this sounds like you- I think you know what to do, by virtue of asking the question.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:08 PM on October 24, 2019 [14 favorites]

I asked a very similar question a few years ago, as I was in a pretty similar position and state of mind to yours, and got some excellent advice. I didn't make the switch to the tools, but I did retrain and get into a completely different industry I like.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:09 PM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Cliff Walk is a book about just this. Personally, I found the author hard to sympathize with and his description of being fired from academia doesn’t really make sense if you know how academia works. However, he did leave teaching English for that type of work and the book has gotten some positive reviews, so it’s possible you’ll find it helpful.
posted by FencingGal at 7:31 PM on October 24, 2019

A friend of mine left grad school in his thirties to study woodworking and now does that full time. He loves it and is so much happier.
posted by pinochiette at 8:28 PM on October 24, 2019

I periodically hire a handyman/contractor here in Seattle. He is AWESOME, having done excellent work for us in plumbing, electrical, framing and finish carpentry. He charges $85/hour and is TOTALLY WORTH IT because of the confidence we have in the work he does. He is very busy and usually I have to schedule his work 3 months out.

I mention all this to give you an idea of what you might be able to charge should you become similarly skilled, and to suggest that you might start looking into coursework that could prepare you for (at first) small jobs that require some electrical or plumbing skills. I think the main reason our guy stays so busy is that he’s prepared to take on nearly any kind of household work one might need done. Making plans to attain that kind of training/experience over the next few years might make your dream financially practical. Good luck!
posted by carterk at 8:30 PM on October 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: That handyman is making a decent wage, but also remember that $85/hr includes paying for his truck, work insurance, drive time, health insurance, and other overhead.

Seattle union journeyman plumber wage (a licensed trade, unlike a handyman) is $62/hr cash on the check, plus ~$25/hr in benefits (healthcare, two pensions, disability insurance, etc). Successful union plumbers in busy times like this often make foreman's wage -- $70/hr cash plus the benefits. That's roughly equivalent to $140,000 working 40-hour weeks -- if you work overtime, it's substantially more.

I am a woman and a journeyman plumber with a B.A. in Statistics from the University of Chicago. I... chafed at white collar work, especially work that felt ethereal to the point of being total bullshit. ("What did I do today? Hmm... I gave the City of New Orleans very specific, carefully crafted advice that they ignored!")

After quitting my consulting job and making very little money farming for year or two, I got some good guidance from some older tradesfolk friends and applied to the plumbing apprenticeship. It hasn't been easy, but working construction is the only thing that's ever stuck for me, and it really suits me.

The nice thing about plumbing is that it's a big place. You can get into big commercial, work 6:30am-3pm, and not think about work when you're home. Or you can become an inspector/plans reviewer for Public Health. Or you can be the service guy running around in a van doing service and small projects (restaurants, breweries, grocery stores, offices). Or you can become a detailer, sitting at a computer and doing what I call "video-game plumbing" aka BIM modeling. Or you can even test for the CPD, which is a PE-equivalent engineering credential for plumbing engineers. I knew a plumber without a degree who was a principal at a major engineering firm until he retired, and as well as being one of the best plumbing engineers anyone had heard of, he also got substantial code revisions passed allowing new sustainable plumbing systems to be constructed.

The other nice thing about it is what you do is tangibly beneficial to your community. And you can physically point to what you accomplished at the end of the day, which is shockingly satisfying. Also, there's always more to learn. Your work ranges from medical gas code to brazing and welding to onsite treatment systems and rainwater capture. I have been in the bottom of a 12' ditch putting in big cast-iron rain drains, or a 30' excavation installing an enormous interceptor. I have also rigged an 800 pound RPBP to transport it up and down staircases inside a building using multiple chainfalls, and I have been 40' up on a rebar wall wearing a harness to install a sleeve for concrete pour.

Personally I am working in the office again at the moment -- but for once I don't hate it. I'm working as a detailer (piping BIM modeler) on big commercial jobs. It pays the same as field work, and includes the same overtime scale. Basically I design the piping layout down to exact lengths and fittings, as well as re-work the vague, incorrect, and non-constructable stuff we sometimes (often) get from the engineer. I got into it while my leg was broken, and I've continued with it because I'm learning new things and I enjoy both the work and my current team.

Apprenticeship was rough, mostly because it was 5 years of balancing work and night school as well as adapting to a new work culture. I found it far more difficult than doing my undergrad at UChicago. But it was totally worth it.

Electrical is another good licensed trade. HVAC/R can be good for folks who are into keeping up on new machinery and technical stuff. Or some folks are willing to forgo the license (licensed trades tend to make more money and have more protections, but it's not universal) because they want to be a carpenter, which can also be a great career for somebody who loves that sort of work!

But I do really recommend doing an apprenticeship, union or not, and getting your journeyman card in a specific discipline rather than trying to be a general handyman, if a solid career is what you're looking for. Find a pre-apprenticeship program in your area if you want help choosing a path and preparing to apply for trades apprenticeships.

I could go on with a million more things about building trades, but it's late and I have to get up early for my plumbing job!
posted by cnidaria at 10:32 PM on October 24, 2019 [78 favorites]

P.S. Especially in the boomtimes we're having now (at least on the West Coast), smart, capable people are rapidly promoted in construction. It's a great industry where if you are competent and friendly and work hard, you can go really far.

This idea that somebody is "too smart" for the trades is really silly and outdated. There are some amazing craftsmen out there who blow my mind with how skilled and smart they are in their trade.

And if the nerdy stuff is what you're into, we do BIM and the Trimble robot and use the HoloLens augmented reality system and do high-tech pipefitting for, for example, Intel computer chip fabrication.
posted by cnidaria at 10:37 PM on October 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

P.P.S. I started apprenticeship when I was 26, but I've met plenty of folks doing it in their 30s or even their 50s.
posted by cnidaria at 10:40 PM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You don’t have to decide to go whole-hog into handymanning just yet.

You could spend $50 and a weekend making yourself a website (or hire someone to make one for you), start an Instagram with before and after photos of your work, post about your skills on some neighbourhood Facebook groups, ask for referrals and testimonials.

See how it feels to have a few clients for a few months, then maybe next year you can see about ramping up your business or formalizing your skill set.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:13 PM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

my family discouraged me because they thought I was "too smart for that"

The perception that trade work is for stupid people is nonsense, and rooted in the fact that it has a history of being done by the poor.

People who went into law and medicine weren't smarter than those in the trades, they just had the privilege of being able to access and afford the networks and education required for those careers.

The hackerspace/makerspace movement has provided me with many hilarious examples of watching supposed programming geniuses try to build their own furniture.
posted by automatronic at 1:37 AM on October 25, 2019 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I wrote the question poorly. To clarify, I don't mean to limit myself to being a handyman over all other options. I've looked into specific trades before, but the impression I've always gotten was that it can be difficult to get into the union and get training. Is that a regional thing, maybe? Also, how do you figure out which specific trade suits you? At this point, I'm not sure how I'd evaluate them all.

And I guess I sort of downplayed my academic achievements when I wrote the question. I actually got a research scholarship that allowed me to take an extra year to write a 75 page historical anthropology thesis (which won a major university award). I absolutely loved the kind of research I was doing, and I would jump at the chance to continue that. So it's not that I have a vague interest in "academia" -- I know exactly what I'd study. If not an extension of the work I started as an undergrad, then something directly related (like, if I can't expand my thesis into a dissertation, what about the Black lawyers who drafted the documents I used for my research?). All this is to say that the focused interest is there, but it's tempered by an understanding that there's no way to continue that research without necessarily subjecting myself to a large degree of stress and uncertainty (and office politics, etc).
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:02 AM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve both worked in the trades (in musical instrument workshops) and done a doctoral degree. The book Cliff Walk came across to me as a little condescending, but I really did like Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. Another recommendation: The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

There is subtlety to every task if you pay attention. Solving practical problems requires as much ingenuity as solving theoretical problems. And it is often more fun and more satisfying.
posted by bluebird at 6:16 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Answering your follow-up:

(1) Pre-apprenticeship. In my area there were several. Often the community college has one.

If you can’t find one, make your own. Volunteer at Habitat. Call the unions and ask to visit their training center and ask for contacts to interview about the trade. Ask those folks about application, the nature of the work, how to be successful. MeMail me.

(2) Apply to union and/or non-union apprenticeships in several trades.

Emphasize your ability to show up on time (early is on time), work hard, and willingness to learn. Get some hands on experience (the stuff you’ve been doing, working at Home Depot, Habitat volunteering) and emphasize that.

Call local contractors and see if they’re hiring for carpenter’s helper. Sometimes temp labor agencies do this. If you can, get your OSHA 10 or OSHA 30 first so you know what unsafe work practices to say no to.

The application process on the union side can take months to a year, it’s good to get another job in the meantime. My local electrician’s union has “helper” jobs that pay poorly but allow people to get jobsite experience while they’re applying. There’s also working for a carpentry contractor, or at a hardware store to help fill that time in a useful way.
posted by cnidaria at 6:29 AM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and when you apply for stuff, include a portfolio like you’re applying for a fancy corporate job. Multiple letters of recommendation, a letter of why you want this that shows you understand the nature of the work, a resume tailored to skills that crossover into the trades, a portfolio of your work. Since I’m a woman included pics of myself in work clothes. Also pics climbing the power pole at a lineman’s school visit to show I was cool with heights.
posted by cnidaria at 6:31 AM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I can't give nearly the detailed advice that cnidaria has, but i can confirm that if you can learn a trade like plumbing, electrical work, HVAC, welding you can do very well. Where i live, electrical has a looong journeyman requirement where you might be making lower wages, but reliable electricians, plumbers etc are in high demand and the push over the last 20 years for high school kids to value a college degree over the potential value of a career in the trades is seriously contributing to the decline in qualified people in those fields. There is now lots of opportunity in those areas and will continue to be in the coming years. Your office experience could be valuable to you in the future if you want to start your own business.

Do you have a vo-tech program where you live? That could be a source of training if you wish.
posted by domino at 8:12 AM on October 25, 2019

Best answer: Apprenticeship for skilled trades is 4-5 years. You get paid during apprenticeship. In my union you start at 40% of journey scale and work your way up through 10 wage increments in six-month periods.

A journeyman (...journey worker?) is a fully qualified trades worker. When you finish apprenticeship, you journey out. There is not a “long journeyman requirement”, journeyman is what you are when you finish apprenticeship.

Some states have “master plumber” or “master electrician” that you can earn on top of journeyman but I’ve never lived in one of those states.

Foreman runs a crew of journeymans and gets a pay bump. General foreman runs multiple foremans and gets an another pay bump. Then there’s the superintendent for the company who supervises them all. But all of these people are “journeyman plumbers/electricians/whatever”.
posted by cnidaria at 12:20 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

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