Last year, we ran a series of articles extolling the virtues and eliminating the myths of the skilled trades. While we were able to cover a lot of ground, there wasn’t room to provide a detailed picture of all the various trades out there for men to pursue. So, as an accompaniment to our So You Want My Job series, we’ll be running regular installments of So You Want My Trade: interviews that offer an inside view of the pluses and minuses of various blue collar career choices.
When you think of the trades, you probably think of more visible fields like plumbing, welding, or electrical work. But there are a lot of trades that aren’t as well known, yet still provide great benefits and satisfaction for employees. One of those is the elevator mechanic. If you work in an office, you probably use an elevator every day without even thinking twice about it. And you probably get annoyed when it’s out of service and you’re forced to take the stairs. Like anything mechanical, though, elevators require precise construction and maintenance to ensure they can safely make hundreds of daily trips.
I had the pleasure of interviewing military vet Casey Planchon about the ins and outs of this career.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
I was born and raised in San Jose, CA, and worked odd jobs and went to college until I joined the U.S. Army in 2003. I served ten years, did one tour in Iraq, and got out the summer of 2013. I am now 35, and live in San Antonio, TX, and I work for Kone Elevators and Escalators. I found the International Union of Elevator Constructors through a veteran program called Helmets to Hardhats.
Helmets to Hardhats is a website for veterans (www.helmetstohardhats.org). You have to register, and then you can search all types of trades that are approved for the GI Bill in your city, or any city your interested in. When I was looking through the lists of trades I saw the elevator union, read what they do, and thought it was awesome. And with the oil boom here in south Texas, work is plentiful. I have been an elevator mechanic apprentice for over a year and a half now.
2. Why did you want to get into elevator construction?
I knew that I wanted to work outside, and do something with my hands. While I have a B.S. in Environmental Studies, that doesn’t help much in the trades. But with this apprenticeship, the hands-on work and classroom training are perfectly suited to the novice. The timing was perfect for me actually. I got out of the Army in August 2013, and a few weeks later there was an interview at the union, which hadn’t happened for a long time.
3. Can you define elevator mechanics for us a little bit?
There are two types of elevators: traction and hydraulic. Traction is more for taller buildings, over six floors or so. Ropes, traction electric motors, and counter-weights move the elevator up and down. Hydraulic elevators are for buildings that are up to five floors or so, due to the limited distance the jacks can reach. Hydraulic fluid goes through a submersible motor, and either pumps fluid into the jacks raising the elevator, or drains it into the tank lowering it. Complex electrical systems control the elevator, from the push buttons in the lobby, inside the car, fire safety, telecommunications, and so on. Of course this is a brief general description!
I have worked on existing traction elevators, but the majority of my time has been building hydraulic elevators. Elevator constructors are responsible for all phases of building. From unloading the truck, setting rails, building the platform, building the cab, and running all of the wiring. We handle it from start to finish.
4. How do you find work as an elevator mechanic? What’s the job market like?
You want to be in the highest paying trade in the country? There are 66 local elevator unions across the United States, in most major cities. Contact your closest union hall, and inquire about the next application period. Growth is estimated at 25% until 2022, and the average pay is $76,650 per year ($38.65/hr). Getting in can be difficult. First is the application, then a mechanical aptitude exam.
Next is the interview, and they can be very rare; sometimes years go between interviews. I can only speak from my experience, but I had to call the union to see if they were interviewing. They have not used mediums like indeed.com or monster.com to put out interview dates; it’s mostly word of mouth. The interview consisted of one union member, and one company man (nonunion corporate employee). They grade you on certain things like mechanical aptitude, schooling, work history. Then you are ranked out of how many were interviewed. Then companies call the union to hire, and the union sends them out in order of ranking. The union does not send you to a job, the company does. The union negotiates pay, handles legal issues, and looks for work for you. That is a simplistic summary, but hopefully you get the idea. I was ranked 6th out of 40, and it still took me 4 months to get hired. If you are at the end of the list, it can be a long while if you ever do get hired, so don’t quit your day job.
5. What is training like to become an elevator mechanic?
The National Elevator Industry Educational Program is 5 years long. One year of probationary employment, where you have to do 6 months of online schooling. Then as long as you are working full-time those months you will be eligible for awesome health, vacation, annuity, and pension benefits. After the next 6 months of probation, there are 4 more years of schooling while you work, usually one night a week for 4 hours. Courses covered are a lot of safety classes (falls, electricity, etc.), hoistway structures, electrical fundamentals, electrical theory and application — too many to list in full. They are broken up into semesters, basically 8 semesters in 4 years. After your 5th year, you take a mechanics exam, pass that, and you are an elevator mechanic. I am already OSHA 10 certified, and just took classes and an exam to become scaffold certified. You can also get certified in welding, and other trade skills as well.
6. Tell us a little bit about a normal workday.
Be prepared to end up covered in dirt, concrete and sheetrock dust, and soaked in sweat, when all is said and done. A typical day, if you are building new installation elevators, will be on, surprise, a construction site. Hours for me are usually Monday through Thursday, 7:00–5:30. You and your mechanic will unload the truck full of pallets, rails, and the controller. Most all parts weigh north of 100lbs, and must be moved mostly by hand from outside to the hoistway inside.
We’ll measure the pit floor and set the pit-plate, then start stacking some rails up the hoistway. If it is a hydraulic elevator you will have to cut and groove pipe, and pipe it from the jacks to the controller. Then we run the electrical, hang doors, build the car, and adjust it when done. This of course is a very summarized list. Big picture, a five-stop elevator should take about 3 weeks to complete.
If you work in the service department, your job is to repair and do annual tests on elevators that are already installed. It is usually a 5-days-a-week schedule. You will be going into buildings that are already occupied, so the safety of the public is another concern. Elevators are like any machine — they need maintenance and repairs over time.
Oh yeah, if you are scared of heights this job isn’t for you. You will find yourself 100+ feet at the top of a hoistway, on an extension ladder, carrying heavy equipment to the I-beam, with only a lifeline connected to your lanyard and full body harness safety vest. It is a long way down, and most work is done at heights.
7. What is the work/life balance like?
I work in new installation, so I work four days, 10 hours a day. So for me, having a three-day weekend every weekend is awesome. And if you do get overtime, it ends up being double-time, and well worth working on the weekend. Each union can cover a lot of territory, so you may spend months out of town, four days a week, and home for a three-day weekend. This can be hard for some people, depending on your situation. While you are an apprentice for the first 5 years, you get 3 weeks of paid vacation per year. After you make mechanic, you get 1 month of paid vacation per year.
8. What’s the best part of your job?
Transforming an empty, hollow hoistway to a working elevator in a matter of weeks. Pay is also really good, even when you are just starting out. And the benefits are top notch. They contribute to an annuity, for every hour you work, and it adds up quick. And it is one of the few remaining jobs that still has a pension when you are done. The union is full of a bunch of hard-working blue collar guys, and most are always willing to help you out either at work, or in your personal life.
9. What’s the worst part of your job?
Being in construction, the job is cyclical with the economy. Getting laid off is a real concern. The first year is a trial, and you will be tested, with your mind and body. And it is dangerous. Heights, high-voltage electricity, and moving mechanical parts are all potential hazards.
10. What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?
Most people don’t think elevators are built by specially trained mechanics. And as long as they are working, they don’t give an elevator much thought. But like any machine, it needs to be built and maintained over the life of the equipment, like a car would.
11. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to add?
My advice would be to start young, while you’re healthy and strong. The job has its ups and downs. But the pay, benefits, and satisfaction of building and fixing elevators, escalators, and moving walkways are the best of all the trades. If you decide to pursue this path, push hard and be safe.