How I Developed My DIY Skills

The world of DIY is a world of highly diverse skills and tasks. In one day you could go from unclogging a sink to replacing windows to maintaining your car. How does one develop a diverse skill set? Why, with a diverse background, of course! Or by reading fantastically informative and entertaining DIY blogs, but let’s dive into the background aspect, shall we?

The Variable Career Path of Captain DIY

Long, long ago, when your dear old pal the Captain was a wee lad of between seven and ten, the DIY world felt a disturbance in the force as he picked up a hammer for the first time and drove a nail into a piece of wood. There may have also been some hammering of a thumb, but let’s not worry about that just now.

The Captain trying not to die, circa 1990

That first nail became many more, as the Captain and his dad General DIY began building what would eventually become a monstrous four-story treehouse in the woods nearby. More projects would come to claim precious hours of the Captain’s youth, as barns needed to be built to store goods and plumbing needed to be installed to satisfy inspectors.

While this was not paid work, and therefore doesn’t assist the Captain with his Social Security payouts, many lessons were learned and may callouses were formed.

First Job Ever

When I was about 14 or 15 (that’s right, time to stop with the ridiculous third-person crap), I started my first paid job ever. There was an extended family member who lived nearby, and he happened to own a pottery business. When I say I worked for a potter, I don’t mean I had the kindly hands of Ghost Patrick Swayze teaching me the ways of the wheel. This was a mass-production place, in which the closest I got to actually touching pottery was putting a glob of clay into a mold and pressing some buttons. Not particularly glamorous. I should point out here that the owner was a DIY genius who built every machine in his shop from scratch. And I mean everything!

  • Highest Pay: probably around $6 per hour after I had been there for a year or so.
  • Lesson Learned: As this was the first time I ever had to report to a boss, the biggest takeaway I got from this was learning how to be a responsible employee. In other words, show up on time.

Wait for Me!

I don’t remember why exactly I stopped working there, but at some point I decided to move on. In this case, move on to the illustrious world of Waiting Tables. My introduction to the job was pretty comical as far as starting new jobs goes; I smoked at the time, and when I asked the owner if I could take smoke breaks his response was, “as long as I can take a martini break too.” Which he did. Frequently. I was also occasionally paid in alcohol. I was 16 at the time.

So inspirational

I worked at that restaurant for a summer, and while I’d love to say I learned valuable lessons on interpersonal relationships and organizational skills, it was more of a “learn how to make a pipe out of a potato” type of experience. Not to say I didn’t get any good experience out of it, of course.

  • Highest Pay: I don’t remember exactly, but it was in the neighborhood of $4 per hour. I think I was bringing home about $50 in tips every night.
  • Lesson Learned: Getting paid in alcohol is fun when you can’t legally buy it, but that won’t help you in the long run. Also, treat other people well and they’ll probably (hopefully) return the favor.
Lean and mean. Mostly lean.

On to the Next

I left that job once high school started getting in the way of work, so there was a period of time in which I was unemployed. Not a big deal, as my expenses were minimal.

The next job I got was one of my favorites: delivery driver for a chicken wing restaurant.

Living near a college town, there are lots of opportunities for businesses to make money. This means there are lots of opportunities for young people without a whole lot of marketable skills or work background to get jobs. I had a friend who was a delivery driver, and he told me all kinds of stories of coming home with wads of cash and a trunk full of beers given as tips by drunken college students. You had me at beer!

I interviewed with the manager, and since I had a valid driver’s license and a functioning pulse, I got the job. This job started at 4:00 in the evening and the last orders were taken at 2:00 in the morning, which meant that the last drivers would come back by 2:30 or so. We would all go over our receipts and cash, make sure everything was in order, and go out and party until the sun came up. Good times!

  • Highest Pay: $5.25 per hour, but on a good Saturday I would leave with a little over $100 in cash as well. Average tip yield was probably around $75 per weeknight.
  • Lesson Learned: I went through several cars during my two years there, and the biggest takeaway I got from that job was that sometimes a fistful of cash at the end of the night doesn’t actually mean you’re making good money. What kinds of expenses are you incurring to do your job?

This Seems Familiar…

When you work as a delivery driver for any length of time, you get to meet other drivers from other businesses. What this means is you get to hear all about how the grass is much greener everywhere else.

I hopped over the fence to another company, this time delivering pizzas and calzones. Same area, same routes, slightly better hourly wage. Also, the last orders were taken at 4:00 in the morning on the weekends, so the hours were a little bit different.

This marks one of the highlights of my life, which would be the time I overslept for a 6:00 PM shift. Yep, woke up at seven in the evening, and it took me a good ten minutes to determine whether it was morning or evening. Twilight looks the same on either end, especially when you have just woken up from a 12-plus hour night’s sleep.

  • Highest Pay: I believe this one ended up giving me around $6.75 per hour, and my tip intake was similar to the last job.
  • Lesson Learned: Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. Seriously. Just because you have something good going on doesn’t mean you don’t have options for growth elsewhere.

How About a Nice Scoop of Carpal Tunnel?

After my delivery career met its end, and my supply of cheap crappy cars had run out, I tried my hand at a local ice cream shop. I was in school at the time getting my Associate’s Degree in graphic design, which is a field I hated almost as soon as I started in it, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time or energy for work, so I only worked Saturdays from 4:00 PM to 12:00 AM.

I would come home after a shift smelling like fudge and exhaustion, and wake up with sore wrists. If you’ve never scooped ice cream for a living, and you’re looking for a good way to shorten the useful lifespan of your upper extremities, I recommend finding your nearest ice cream purveyor and applying for a job!

I worked at the ice cream shop for a whopping four Saturdays. I was just about to say that was the shortest job I have ever held, but then I remembered another one buried in my past. Somewhere way way back, (I have no idea when exactly) I worked as a chairlift operator for the tiny ski mountain that is within spitting distance of my father’s house. I did that for four hours, and never ended up getting paid for it. But we’re talking about the ice cream shop right now.

  • Highest Pay: I don’t remember exactly, but it was in the neighborhood of $8 per hour, with a little bit extra from tips. Like, maybe ten dollars a night extra.
  • Lesson Learned: Scooping ice cream for a living sucks. Also, the only person who makes real money in a small service-oriented business is the owner, so if you want to work in that sector, think about being the owner of a small business.

I Saw the Sign

The end of my abysmal run at the ice cream shop was brought about by an ad in the local paper for a position in the production department of a small local sign shop. You know, the place that makes the sign that gets hung up outside of the local bookstore or kale-smoothie places. The kind of small business that other small businesses rely on to help them get more business.

It just so happened that the owner of this shop had fairly recently married the mother of a girl I had been friends with in high school, which certainly helped smooth out the interview process. That being said, a good handshake and direct eye contact with a smile will go a very long way!

I started out at the sign shop making $7 per hour. The production shop was literally a greenhouse attached to the building, which meant extremely cold winters and ridiculously hot summers.

This was the first real tool-oriented job I had that didn’t involve working for my dad, and the tools involved in signmakiing were different from what I was used to in a lot of cases. I was now getting my hands dirty doing metal fabrication, self-adhesive vinyl application, and even a little bit of computer-directed plotting machine work. And the people I worked for, while they occasionally took breaks from their day to scream violently at each other, were cool and pretty easy-going. Plus I got to operate a bucket truck. Awesome!

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 8.33.30 PM
Pretty sure that’s not how they’re supposed to work

This was also the first job in which I actually moved up the corporate ladder, so to speak. I eventually ended up with the title of “Production Manager” with an enormous and diverse staff of three interns underneath me. Two of them were much younger than me (I was in my very early twenties at the time), and the other was maybe a year older than me.

While I joke about the size of my staff, it actually played into my leadership education very well. Because there were only three of them, and because they were all young, the four of us got along well and I was able to hone my skills as a manager in a mostly friendly environment. Of course, we butted heads every now and then, but every time we did I was able to make things work and we all came out of it stronger.

  • Highest Pay: At the very top I was making $13 per hour. Felt like good money at the time, but my wife (girlfriend at the time) knew that I would want to be doing better someday. She’s definitely the brains behind all of this (in other words, everything I do).
  • Lesson Learned: I learned a lot from that job. First of all, I developed an increased confidence in my tool manipulation skills. Second of all, I learned negotiation skills as I bargained every once in a while for better pay. Third of all, I dipped my toes into the murky waters of management. I haven’t been back in since, but parenting is basically managing a bunch of tiny unreasonable employees, so I consider myself slightly more prepared for parenthood than I would have been.

It’s Electric! (Boogie Woogie Woogie)

I had been working at the sign shop for a little over five years when I realized that I needed to grow my skill set. I figured, in my backwards way, that if I became a licensed electrician I would be more valuable to the sign company; this way I would be able to ask for more money.

See, a lot of signs have lights inside them. Those lights require proper wiring and such, and therefor I linked signage and electrical licensure in my mind. I mentioned this thought off-handedly to my wife (still girlfriend at the time), and the next thing I know I’m getting promotional emails from the local “after-market” vocational schools.

I went over this story in detail in a post titled, “Making the Case for Learning a Trade” a while back, so I won’t go too deep here. Suffice it to say, I did a one-week internship at an electrical supply house (the longest and most boring week of my life), then a few months later dove into my new career with an Apprentice Electrician position working for a local contractor.

It was a small shop, and the boss was the third generation owner. His father still worked in the office, and would occasionally run parts out to us in field. I was mostly partnered up with the same guy, and while we definitely had our differences, we ended up getting along fairly well. Good thing too, because we spent a solid forty hours per week together!

When I started working as an apprentice, I was given an “introductory rate” of $7.50 an hour. A little bit more than half of what I had been making at the sign shop. Ouch.

After a few weeks, I was given a raise, and after a few months I was given another raise, and then I would get a little bit more every year. Eventually, about four years after I had left the sign shop, I was back up to $13 per hour. Success!

I finished my apprenticeship hours after four years at the shop, and once I passed the test and got my license my pay jumped up to $19.50 overnight. Finally I had hit the big time! I was 29 years old, and I was making the big bucks. Good thing too, as I now had a small child to care for!

Sparky at work!

I worked at that shop for almost a year after I got my license, and then an ad came in the paper for an electrician at the University, and I threw my name in the hat. Why not, right?

  • Highest Pay: I didn’t stick around too long after my big pay bump, but I was there long enough to make it to $20.50 per hour.
  • Lesson Learned: The biggest takeaway for me was the time spent working under a very strong-willed and opinionated person who thought they knew everything and that they were above everyone. The amount of time I spent standing up for myself and defending my right to be respected as a human taught me more than any classroom ever could. I was afraid in the beginning that he would change me, but in the end I used him to change myself for the better.

Back to the Present

We have made it back from the distant annals of Captain DIY’s sordid employment past! It wasn’t that bad, really, and all told, each one of those jobs gave me something powerful to add to my “life resumé.”

Currently, I am working as a maintenance electrician at a University getting state benefits and wading through endless reels of red tape. I also have a thriving business on the side as an electrician, which keeps my skills sharp and gives me fulfillment.

This year I’m on track to make a little over $60k at the University, and I am able to supplement that nicely with side job income. With the benefits I get from my day job, my wife and I were able to have another child, and my wife has started a private practice as a therapist which is absolutely thriving.

  • Lesson Learned: Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward. In my case, I took a nearly 50% pay cut in order to slide over to a much more lucrative and fulfilling path.

Don’t Forget the Cars

I should probably also point out that during this tenure of employment, I worked my way through at least a dozen cars, none of which cost me more than $3000.

I changed the clutch on one, put a new head gasket in another one, held the exhaust on with a clamp, did brake repairs, had wheels fall off, and drove 150 miles with my emergency brake on.

If ever there was a physical manifestation of the lessons of patience and perseverance, it would be a $300 car. I don’t recommend it.

Your Turn

What kind of circuitous career path have you taken to get where you are now? And what are some of the best lessons you have learned along the way?

Let us know some of your best and worst employment and DIY stories in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “How I Developed My DIY Skills

  1. Awesome post! Very inspiring. I’ve had my fair share of different jobs too, but none as diverse as yours! I think it’s great that you’re brave enough to take all these risks with different jobs– and in different industries no less! And yeah, sometimes it’s not about the money. I took a huge cut to my monthly income when I started doing other things, but now I’m much happier. There really are some things worth sacrificing for. 💓


  2. You’ve had quite the few jobs! I’ve only had 5, and all pretty cushy and well paying for what they were- concierge for private jets, office worker at the university, engineer for an aerospace company, and finally a government worker. Husband on the other hand has been through probably as many jobs as you- master baiter (thats what they called him) on a long line fishing ship, HVAC technician through college, taxidermy assistant, power generation technician, air compressor technician, and now a facilities maintenance. Absolutely none of these jobs relied on his college degree (electrical engineer).

    Liked by 1 person

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