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My Path through the Skilled Trades

We received this letter from Caterpillar employee Steve Dougherty.

Mr. Rowe,

I’m sitting in a hotel room right now after a week of impressively intense work at a few customer sites near Gillette Wyoming. I’m not from Wyoming, in fact this is the first time I’ve ever been here. I grew up in a small town near Peoria, IL – I saw on Facebook you were just there this week. Small world.

I’ve always liked what you’ve done since I first saw your show Dirty Jobs. I really like what you are doing now with mikeroweWORKS and the company I work for, Caterpillar. You have, in ways, given gave me motivation to get where I am today in my life. I even got to shake your hand and have a 30 second conversation with you at one of our facilities in Peoria a number of years ago. Because of that, I wanted to take the time to share my journey with you. I know you are a busy guy, I just hope you can find time to read it.

I grew up in the small town of Morton, IL. As I said, not far from Peoria. I went to high school there, class of 2001. Like most kids in that age, the question of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was a daunting one. I had no idea. So, like most every other kid in my class, I applied to college. I liked playing with computers, so I thought, “Hey…lets go work with computers.” Because I wasn’t a top honors student, I didn’t have my choices of prestigious schools – but as that turned out, it was probably a good thing.

I ended up attending Illinois State University, with a target of Computer Science degree. Back then, the IT field was booming. And as I found out, there were many other aspiring 18 year olds that had the same idea that I did. Unfortunately, as I would imagine many other young adults learn, what I had thought I wanted to do with my life was actually the worst possible choice for me. During my second year, I finally decided that I hated sitting in front of a pc screen all day long looking at code. Additionally, (this is where it was probably a good thing I went to a state school) I didn’t have the guts to admit to anyone, myself included, that I had made the wrong choice. I ended up only passing one class that semester – a second level physics course.

What followed was predictable. Since my parents were very graciously funding my experience in higher education, I was told that if I wanted to continue any college level education I would be doing it at a local community college or funding it myself. So, with my tail between my legs, I moved back home with my parents. Not my brightest hour. Also not all that excited to get back into classes, I started looking for work. I landed a job at a local welding and fabrication company as an assembler. Unskilled labor. I bolted smaller widgets to larger widgets in a sweltering, poorly lit, inadequately ventilated shop. After a few weeks, one of the finish grinders quit and I got to move to his position. A bit more money, dirtier work, and my hands started to go numb after about a month of doing that. I started badgering my boss to learn how to weld. A few months went by, but I was eventually put through the companies weld training program. I had arrived.

Or so I thought. For the next 14 months, I learned the meaning of hard labor. The weld wing at this particular company was even worse than the assembly and grind area I had been frequenting for the previous 5 months. Not only was the facility in poor shape, we were not provided proper equipment for the job. Many workers were expected to use welding hoods that did not adequately shield their eyes from the arc and thin cotton t-shirts were considered satisfactory garments to cover your arms and chest. I was also quick to learn the lesson of doing things right the first time. Any built parts that didn’t pass quality inspection were scrapped, and the cost of materials taken out of my paycheck. On top of all that, the social environment would be best described as toxic. Environment fed the attitudes, I suppose.

After a little over a year, I started to look for other work. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, asked me about going back to school again. I was reluctant to move away from what trade marketability I had. Though, I ended up applying and being accepted into the Think Big program at Illinois Central College. I’m guessing that you might know a thing or two about this program now, being involved with Caterpillar. But in case you don’t, it’s a Cat sponsored program to train dealership technicians to work on heavy equipment. Caterpillar ended up sponsoring me, rather than a dealer. As a result, I was not headed to a local dealership, but Cat’s proving grounds in East Peoria, IL.

My time in the Think Big program was incredibly well spent. The curriculum very well thought out, instructors incredibly knowledgeable, and top notch facility. The class scheduling was structured in such a way that I had a chance to apply what I learned as time progressed. A semester’s worth of hours were delivered in just 8 weeks, the following 8 weeks of the semester were spent at the facility sponsoring us. The proving grounds, in my case. I was finally in a position to apply myself in a meaningful way. After graduation from school, I worked the job like anyone else. I even mentored a number of students coming up through the same program I finished. Furthermore, the jobs I was responsible for and the skill I learned apply today just as much as they did then. Axles, engines, transmissions, electrical, control systems, hydraulics – knowing how to service and troubleshoot these things has proven to be one of the most valuable skillsets that I have.

Today, I still work for Caterpillar. I am no longer in the blue collar ranks, I work as a product support engineer in our mining division. I’m involved in the new product development cycle and am responsible for testing and implementation of new technology at customer sites. Quite a rewarding job, something that I wouldn’t be near as proficient at – perhaps not even possible – without my experiences as a technician.

Which brings this long winded rambling to a point. A couple months back, my dad attended a seminar (?) that you had spoken at. He said that you presented on skilled trades and how important they are to the workforce today. And, while I probably don’t fit the traditional view of a skilled trade worker given the role I fill today, I strongly believe that my path has made me what I am today. Dealing with failure, developing work ethic, desire to constantly learn more, driven to continually improve myself; all of these things have played some part in my life. If I’ve learned anything through all this, it’s that the expected four year degree from college is not the only path to a good career. I wanted to share this with you because I greatly respect what you are doing with your life and skills today. Also, to show you an example of a young guy who didn’t know what to do with his life 14 years ago, who decided learn a trade rather than wander aimlessly through college.

Thanks for reading.