Career Lessons from Truck Drivers, HVAC Techs and Construction Workers

What I learned about life in talking with some of the hardest working people around.

By Stephen Dupont

Over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds truck drivers, construction workers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians about their jobs, gathering insights to develop content for my clients’ websites and social media pages.

Who are these people?

Whether they’re Americans, Canadians, British or Australian, they’re down-to-earth, hardworking people who want better lives for themselves and those they love.

I learned all about their work. What they did each day and how they did it. As well as the tools they used to complete their work.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know if they truly enjoyed what they were doing.

Did they feel their work mattered?

Did they feel they were doing what they were meant to be doing?

Mind you, the work that these people do is pretty tough.

Imagine, if you will, getting behind the wheel at 4 a.m., such as Joy, a truck driver from Tennessee who I interviewed recently, to start her driving shift (Joy is a team driver).

Or being up on the roof of a building on a 100-degree day servicing the commercial central air units of an industrial building.

Or, working the tarmac on a blistering hot August day at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

When you hear about the back-breaking work that some of the people I’ve interviewed do day-in and day-out, sitting in front of your computer screen in a cozy little cubicle and attending a few meetings each day doesn’t seem all that bad.

But that’s the point.

To most of these people, that life — the life of a white-collar worker — would be a living hell.

Take for example, Joe, a truck driver from Georgia who owns his own truck and drives exclusively for a company that I assist with content marketing. While he makes a decent living, what matters even more is the freedom he experiences when he gets behind his big rig and hits the road.

To Joe, and his wife, who assists with him with running the business, it’s about the freedom to be in control of your life — to run a business and to manage your time the way you want. Without someone always looking over your shoulder.

Let’s be frank here, whether you drive for a company or you own your own truck, you still need to take directions from a dispatcher who tells you where you need to move a load from point A to point B. Not exactly what I call freedom. Would you?

But to the truck drivers I interviewed, it’s often about serving a greater purpose.

Literally, if it weren’t for truck drivers, there would be no food at the grocery store for us to buy. Or gas to fuel our cars. Or supplies such as shovels, vacuum cleaners, or lawn mowers to build and maintain our homes.

To them, moving these supplies is about keeping America moving. This is the higher purpose they serve.

In the case of construction workers — it’s people trained to build the spaces where we gather to work, worship, heal or simply live in — our homes.

And as for HVAC techs, my interview with Marcos, an HVAC tech who works in Rio Grande City, Tex., sums it up. Marcos became an HVAC tech when he saw how warm his house could become without air conditioning. As a new father, he didn’t want to see his kids experiencing that level of discomfort, so he learned how to install an AC unit in his home. From there, he took classes and is now doing for his family, neighbors and local restaurants throughout southern Texas the job he began because he wanted to help his family.

Learning from Everyday Hard Working People

What can we learn from these people?

Here are some insights that I believe you or most anyone can apply to their lives. This is wisdom not learned by sitting in a class, but wisdom earned the hard way — hauling America’s freight, building America’s buildings, and repairing America’s heating and cooling systems.

Know Your Plan. The hard-working people I’ve interviewed have dreams just like anyone else. They dream about paying off their debt, filling up their savings accounts, buying homes, taking vacations, and creating a better life for their kids.

They’re also planners.

Mandy, a truck driver who lives in a small town near Dallas-Fort Worth, intentionally left her job as an auto parts salesperson because she felt stuck in her career. She sold practically everything, including her home, with the plan of paying off her student debt and building a nest egg for the future.

Here’s another example: A male-female truck-driving team who love to ride their Harley-Davidson motorcycles, know that to truly make the money to afford their dreams, they need to keep the wheels of their truck moving. Because they are paid by the number of miles driven while hauling a load, they’ve developed a strong partnership and are committed to staying out longer on the road (many over-the-road drivers stay out an average of two to three weeks at a time before heading home), and not turning down any loads. They work closely with their dispatcher, who understands their plan and, in turn, helps them identity the best routes for their shipments.

Show Up on Time. In the world of construction, the workday often starts at 6:30 a.m. Does that mean you drive up and park your truck at 6:30 a.m.? Heck no! Because it’s a team effort, the team needs to start at 6:30 a.m. That’s why the unwritten rule is that you show up at least 20 minutes before the start of the workday to get yourself ready to work. That means planning accordingly. The more cushion you build in, the less stress you will feel, and as a result, you’ll get your day off to a better start.

Avoid Distractions. Do you really want a truck driver who is hauling a 53-foot trailer, which, when fully loaded, weighs about 70,000 pounds and is barreling down the highway at 65 miles per hour to be distracted by text messages?

Or, for that matter, distracted by an earlier argument with his or her spouse?

Or is upset by political news?

When I talk to truck drivers, most, if not all, stress the importance of safe driving. They understand that they have a unique responsibility. If they lose their focus, the chance increases that their truck and trailer could kill someone. None of the drivers I’ve come to know want that. So, regardless of what you do for work, try to approach your day by eliminating outside distractions and focusing your full attention on what you do. You will not only feel more satisfied, you’ll act (and feel) more professional.

Have a Support System. While it’s important to have the drive and the grit to succeed at whatever you do, truck drivers, HVAC techs and construction workers said a key to their success is the team of people they rely upon. To deliver that next load, a truck driver knows he or she must have good communications with their dispatcher and their route planner. Same for HVAC techs, who must get to the jobs that were planned for them at the start of the day, as well as the emergency jobs that can pop up at the last minute.

But the people at work are just one support system. Family and friends are also key to your success. Natasha, a single mom from the Chicago area who works as a solo over-the-road driver, said she relies upon her teenage children and her mother not only to keep things running smoothly at home, but to provide the emotional support to keep her focused on her job.

Have a Mission. We often get caught up in the short game. We think about that next promotion, an increase in our salary or earning a big year-end bonus.

Truck drivers, HVAC techs, landscapers, electricians and bricklayers think about those things, too.

But I was equally amazed by what really propelled them — their mission in life.

Truck drivers said: I’m here to keep America moving.

HVAC techs said: I’m here to control the (indoor) weather and make people comfortable so they can live better and work more productively.

Construction workers point to the buildings they’ve worked on: “I helped build that — I’m building a city. My city.”

Reflecting on her career in construction, Denisha, a plumber’s assistant who lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area shared this thought with me: “I want to own my own shop someday. I want to help women and minorities get into it (construction). I even see Black men struggling to get into construction. I want to help them, too.”

Do you feel your work has greater meaning?

Do you feel that what you do is bigger than the to-do list that you’re working on today?

What you do does matter and it may have far greater impact than what you might think.

Have the Right Tools for the Job. A truck is a tool. If you want to make sure it gets the job done, a truck driver will carefully conduct a safety check to make sure everything is in working order.

A construction worker, HVAC tech or bricklayer brings the right tools that he or she needs to the job site. They often invest in their own tools. They understand that not having the right tools, or having tools that are not maintained, will cost them time and money.

This concept extends to having the right clothes and boots (if you’re distracted by sore, wet feet, you’re not going to be able to pay attention to the job), electronics (a smartphone in good working order) and maybe even the vehicle they drive.

Work for Others Who Know You By Your First Name. What I’ve learned in talking with truck drivers is that at many companies, the dispatcher will contact the driver and address the driver by their driver number.

Imagine you, the marketing manager at a fast-growing tech company being addressed as “Marketing Manager 657399.”

I couldn’t. That’s why getting to know the people you work with is so important and addressing them by name is so impactful. It’s about showing respect for other persons.

I’m not the greatest at remembering names, but in talking with drivers such as Brian and Tricia, and HVAC techs such as David from Dallas and Stephen from Boston, and bricklayers such as Chris from Minnesota, I understand that no matter what your job, no matter how young or old you are, people want to be treated with respect. That usually starts with using their name — as they wished to be addressed.

Know When to Pull Over. Regardless of what you do for a living, the most important thing that matters is operating in a safe environment. In the world of truck driving, some companies may push their drivers to drive through hazardous conditions, such as snow and ice. In construction, some companies might encourage their workers to take shortcuts to speed up the construction process. Likewise, in the white-collar world, some companies tolerate the behavior of supervisors who encourage employees to play loose with the rules.

But the reality is, however, that if you push your luck too much, it’s not a matter of “if” something bad will happen, but “when.” The truck drivers I’ve spoken with take safety very seriously. If driving conditions are poor, they pull over. They understand that they’re not just protecting themselves and other drivers (including you and me, driving our own vehicles), but they’re protecting their cargo as well. But at some companies, that mindset might get you fired.

On the other side of this, I’ve spoken with directors of transportation and logistics at several companies about driver safety. The most professional ones view drivers — even those working for a third-party trucking company — as extensions of their company.

Do you think they want their products spilling all over a freeway because a driver was told to keep driving during a blizzard?

No way.

If you own a company or are in a position of leadership, don’t take shortcuts. Protect the safety, as well as the integrity, of employees at all times. If you work for a company that doesn’t take these matters seriously, leave and find one that does. They’re out there.

Share Your Success. Frank, a 25-year-old African-American electrician from a Twin Cities suburb, told me: “If I hadn’t found this line of work as an electrician, I would either be dead or I would be in prison.”

Frank was clearly proud of what he does. He makes a good wage and, as a member of a union, he’s building a pension that will carry him through retirement. He’s happy. He and his wife are proud parents of a new baby girl.

And he’s determined. He’s seen firsthand what having a good, solid job can mean to his life and he’s determined to share his story to help other Black men like him obtain employment in the construction trades.

Frank’s story resonates with me. I too believe it’s important to share our wisdom with those entering the work world and help them make connections — just like the men and women who helped me get my start in the world of public relations, marketing and branding.

Mastering Customer Service. Excelling at customer service is not just for Fortune 500 companies. JC, an HVAC tech located in the Outer Banks islands of North Carolina, says he doesn’t advertise his services. He doesn’t even have the name of his company, phone number or website on his service van. He doesn’t promote his business with Facebook or invest in Google Adwords campaigns.

If you want JC, you have to know one of his existing customers.

JC’s secret to success is customer service. It’s about preventing problems before they arise and being available at a moment’s notice to keep the HVAC systems operating on the luxury vacation homes in his area.

He told me, “I consider it a failure if I have to fix an HVAC system during peak vacation season. If I’ve been doing my job right, my clients won’t see me all summer long.”

That’s how JC can afford his own beachside home…right next to the neurosurgeon’s home.

The Bottom Line

In talking with hundreds of truck drivers, construction workers, HVAC techs and other workers, I’ve learned that no matter what you choose to do, success is a mindset.

Every day, it’s about getting up and seeing the best in what the world has to offer and offering your best. It takes brains, willpower and grit. If you want to succeed, you can.

Sometimes, it just boils down to showing up, every day, on time, ready to work.

Did you find this article useful? For more articles about careers, personal growth, curiosity, marketing and more, visit www.stephendupont.co.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at stephen.dupont@pockethercules.com or check out his LinkedIn page at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont.

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