Advice for Newbies


Ray Wohlfarth is a dear friend of many years and his advice about commercial boilers often appears in this magazine. He’s the best big-boiler guy I’ve ever met and he also knows a lot about how to use steam to make beer. Hey, what’s not to like?

Not long ago, Ray asked the Wallies who post daily on The Wall at what advice they would give someone just starting out in this business. Here’s some of what they had to say. There’s a lot of street-smart experience here.

The first guy to answer said, “Take care of your health. Study it like you would HVAC and learn how to keep your body and mind in good shape for a long time. No matter what anyone else says, or whatever sideways glances or chuckles you get, wear the right safety gear and take your personal health on the job seriously.”

I love the part about ignoring those who think they're bulletproof and always happy to make fun of those who know they’re not. Do what’s best for you and don’t let the knuckleheads get under your skin.

And along those lines, another pro said, “Make a thick knee-cushion pad by tripling up the garden kneeling pads and duct taping them together. That’s the best knee protection there is. It’s much better than the strap-on pads.”

If you’ve been around awhile, let me ask you this: How are your knees?

Yeah, mine too.

How about this gem? “Learn from your mistakes.” Newbies often get pounded for making mistakes, and that leads to them not wanting to tell anyone that they made a mistake. Over time, this leads them to think they never make mistakes, and it’s impossible to learn from your mistakes if you convince yourself you’re not making any. It’s okay to be wrong. Admit it, learn, remember, and move on.

Another Wallie advised the newbies to get into management, or sales, or teaching by the time they reach the age of 30. “Keep learning whatever you can,” he advised, “Do it so you can pass on what you know to the younger ones. Do this and you won't need to be in the attics, crawlspaces and other horrible places as your body gets older.”

I think that’s great advice. I watched the crawlspace guys when I was in my 20s. It made me want to read all the books I could get my hands on and become a writer.

How about this advice? “Realize that the customer is the ultimate payer of your salary. Be courteous and polite with them. Explain things to your customer even if she doesn't understand what you're saying. She will be pleased that you respect and involve her. Learn like your pay is dependent on it because it is. The only way to make your job recession- and automation-proof is to gain knowledge. That’s what the customers are paying for.”

A newbie once told me that he liked everything about his job except the customers. “It’s too bad we have to have those,” he said. Huh?

More good advice: “Once you are a decent generalist, and know a little bit of everything, specialize. Then get really good at your specialty. Hunt down mentors. Searching online is fine, but also find the old books and learn from them. That perspective is not available anywhere else and is priceless.”

When I was a newbie and working for a manufacturer’s rep that sold steam-heating equipment I leaned that while our people understood the products we sold, they had no knowledge of the systems those products were serving. They were all hydronically near-sighted, able to see only what was in the product catalogs. When I realized this, I went to the library and read old books. And when the time was right, I wrote The Lost Art of Steam Heating, which changed my life.

“Give work that isn't your specialty to other contractors in your area. You'll soon start seeing referrals from them,” a pro advised. Another said, “Be a teacher, not a salesperson. Teachers and salespeople may say the same thing, but their motivation is different. Customers are more likely to listen to those who want to teach them.”

And to this, another pro added, “As soon as you know enough, start teaching others. Be unassuming about it, and just help a little here and there, or try to explain complex stuff like you're talking to a smart kid. Be a resource for others in the trades. It will always pay back more than you give.”

That’s so true. I’ve helped more people than I can count over the years and never asked for anything in return, but it all came back to me a thousand times over, and in so many unexpected ways. Be a friend to as many people as you can. Help them. It pays.

“Listen to those who have put their time in,” a seasoned pro said. “If your older coworkers see a curious person in you they will take the time to pull you aside and teach you. They will tell you through their actions that they think you might be worthy of their time. They're doing you a favor and a personal service. Not everyone who has crossed their path over the years has been worth that tug on the sleeve. Recognize that and listen to what they have to say.”

Someone else advised the newbies to start a 401K or Roth IRA the week after they get their first paycheck. “Start low and add more as you go along,” he said. “It will add up. And instead of buying new trucks and toys, just keep saving and investing your money. The toys can come later. Be patient.”

A flurry of quick advice followed. “Know your worth without being cocky as you grow. There is another job around every corner, so don't stay somewhere if you hate the place.”

And how about this one? “Don’t follow the guys to the bar every night after work. Have a well-deserved beer, but don't make it a habit.”

Then there was this flurry of good advice:

  • Never try to solve a problem on your way to the service call.
  • Back your vehicle into the driveway after you know the coast is clear.
  • Keep pet treats in your car and truck.
  • Know where the water main shut off is and check that it is in working condition before you do anything else.
  • Don't discount the occupants’ input related to the problem; They often provide great clues.
  • Wear a personal CO detector. Always.
  • Don't overlook the obvious.
  • Have a tabletop- and probe thermometer in your toolkit.
  • Keep good notes.
  • Use the phrase, “Isn't that interesting" with everyone. They’ll tell you more and more when you say that.
  • Always read the instructions.
  • Stay out of Dunkin’ McDonalds, and Burger King

And my favorite of all: “Newbie, the only job I know of where you can start at the top is digging a hole.”

Amen, and thanks again to Ray Wohlfarth for asking a great question.


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