Eli Hernandez grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., thinking about playing in a jazz band and becoming a civil engineer.
He attended the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in high school, where he focused on percussion and drums. He started college, but didn’t find a fit, in part because of the daunting prospect of paying back tens of thousands of dollars in school loans.
Hernandez now is a Master Plumber for the UA Local 630 for plumbers and pipefitters in South Florida, and travels wherever work is needed. He recently spent time in Atlanta, and he’s worked all over Florida, including on the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in Homestead.
“I never grew up thinking I was going to be a plumber,” Hernandez said in a recent interview. “But it’s ended up working out well. I like what I do. I mean, everybody has a bad day at work now and then, but I never go home at the end of the day unhappy about what I’m doing.”
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Hernandez, 27, is another example of a young person finding a niche in the trades. College was not right for him, so he turned to the trades, and now he speaks positively of a job that brings regular work, good pay, and benefits. As he grew in commercial plumbing, his goal changed: to open his own business.
“I just got around to doing the paperwork for that as far as licensing and all that,” he said.
Giving the trades a try
Hernandez’s career path started at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Fla., the state’s first public community college. He then went to the University of Florida, but just for a few months.
“We were not a wealthy family, and my parents didn’t have a lot of money to send me,” Hernandez said. “The jobs I could find were not enough to even pay the rent.”
He researched the trades, found that plumbing paid well and realized that if he ever owned his own business it could pay very well. He had dabbled in some trade work here and there, so he figured he’d give it a try.
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He found a job closer to home with Farmer & Irwin Corp., which does plumbing, HVAC and fire sprinkler work out of Riviera Beach.
“I had a great experience there,” he said. “I did my whole apprenticeship with them, and I worked for really good people. At one point, I broke my foot on a job. They put me in estimating—I had some college experience and I was young—so I learned the business aspects that way.”
Eventually he returned to the field, but he always had a yearning to travel. So he took the job with the Local, which allowed him to scratch that itch.
“I got to work in a lot of different places,” he said. “And I didn’t always do plumbing. I got my welding certificate, things like that. It opened a lot of doors that college wouldn’t have opened as far as travel and making money. With no student debt.”
‘Just a good decision’
He even said his experience in drumming and percussion helped him with hand-eye coordination that applies to his work today. He now is a Master Plumber, and works on the road as a journeyman.
“It was just a good decision,” he said.
Hernandez is taking the idea of opening his own shop slowly. He’s partnered with his girlfriend, who has office and organizational skills, and the pair feel like slow and steady will win the race.
In the interim, he looks back and realizes how he found his path. And he recommends that the path is there for anyone who doesn’t fit the four-years-of-college profile.
“If you’re good with hands-on work, pick a trade and see that through,” he said. “If you want you can always go to college later. At least it’s something to fall back on.
“But most people are hurting for smart people in the trades. If you’re good with your hands and smart, I think you can go pretty far.”
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