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Career Talk: Licensed Builder Aaron Swett

Aaron Swett spends his days either building homes, garages, and decks, or teaching students how to build houses, garages, decks—and more. So he’s a busy guy, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Every weekday, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., he teaches high school students how to build houses. He does this in his role as a Construction Technology Instructor at Oakland County Technical School Northeast, (OSTCNE) in Pontiac, Michigan.

This is one of four Oakland County career and technical education (CTE) campuses—or what has been called “vocational” school. They are open to any students in the county who wish to learn, or at least investigate, a specific trade.

In fact, just next to the OSTCNE school building is the finished wood frame of a new home. Students built this frame, with Aaron’s help and guidance. This took place in the first semester of the two-year Construction Trades program.

The second semester will focus on finishing the inside of this new home, “so students will work with mechanical contractors to get the heating and cooling, plumbing, and electrical systems installed,” Aaron says. “Then we will insulate, drywall, install doors and trim, as well as install the kitchen cabinets and counter tops. We will also install the siding and trim to the outside of the house.”

The house is then offered as part of subsidized housing to a struggling family in the community—and that’s the best part for any builder, Aaron says, a point he shares with his students.

“It’s your pride in the work at the end of the project, when people see the house—or whatever you have built for them—and are just beside themselves. One man told me his wife was in tears when she saw the home my company built for them.

“At first, I was worried, and I asked the man, ‘Why did she cry? Was there something wrong with the house?’ He said, ‘No! It was because she just loved it!’”


The Job Satisfaction Of Construction

This is the side of construction that those who are not builders don’t see: the feeling of accomplishment when you step back and look at the finished product, the fruit of your labor.

This is part and parcel of working in the trades, Aaron says. He should know. Just 39, he has been in construction since high school. In fact, getting into this trade was a turning point not just for him, but for his brother, Gary.

They grew up in the Flint area. Their father was murdered when Aaron was just 8 years old. The following years were chaotic, to say the least. But then Aaron’s uncle, Bud Swett, legally adopted Aaron and Gary.

Uncle Bud happened to be a licensed builder who had his own business. He also was a mason—tradespeople who work with various building stone, such as marble, granite, limestone, cast stone, concrete block, glass block, and adobe.

Learn about other careers in construction

Plus, Uncle Bud was an instructor at OSTCNE (he is now retired). All of this would greatly influence Aaron and Gary as they reached a crucial age in high school.

“He taught us that you had to be accountable for what you did at school, something we really hadn’t known. But he also put us to work on his projects. I loved the physicality of the work. I also liked the pay—we got $5 an hour, back in 1994.

“All of this kept us grounded. Pretty soon, my brother and I both were playing for the high school football team. I started thinking I could get a college scholarship for football, but Uncle Bud started taking me to trade schools and colleges. When I saw the trade schools, I just knew I wanted to attend.”

He enrolled in the Detroit Carpentry Joint Apprenticeship School in Ferndale, Michigan. This led to his work with a local carpenter. “He loved how much I enjoyed working with him, and all the questions I asked,” Aaron says.

One thing led to another, and by the time he was just 20, Aaron had landed an apprenticeship with another builder who was putting up condos in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This man was a mentor, and Aaron worked with him for two years.

The next step brought Aaron to OSTCNE. His uncle asked if Aaron would be his teaching assistant. That was in 2001. “I’ve been here ever since,” he says.


Soft Skills Help Building Professionals Get Ahead

While still active in the trade evenings and weekends, Aaron has learned the tools of the teaching trade as well. He has certain lessons that go beyond hammers, nails, and blueprints. This includes, for example, the “soft skills:” knowing how to talk to clients you work for, how to interact with these clients and construction managers.

“At OSTCNE, students must do presentations on safety, which is good practice learning how to sell your services to customers,” Aaron says.

Aaron regularly invites building professionals out to the build at OSTCNE. “Students interact with these professionals, they have questions. That also builds the soft skills. Some of these students are sooooo shy. But you need to learn how to talk to homeowners.”

Aaron credits in part the plethora of HGTV and DIY network shows about builders for conveying those soft skills—and for the rise in overall respect for tradespeople.


Your Financial Advantage With Construction

Perhaps the most important message Aaron shares with his students is the financial advantage of choosing trade school over traditional college.

“We highlight the money you can make while getting your education. In a four-year apprenticeship, you’ll make $60,000 in the fourth year. If you’re in college, you’ll owe up to $100,000.”

Still, Aaron says, not everyone is suited for the work. One student who was extremely talented and hardworking looked like a sure bet as a carpenter—until it was time to work on the house in the winter cold. Working outside wasn’t for him. “He’s a nurse, now,” Aaron says.

Another student who approached him looked like a punk rocker. He hardly looked the carpenter part. But, Aaron learned, “you can’t judge a book by its cover. He turned out to be one of our best students.”

Some students stay, but end up as construction managers, preferring that part of the building operation.

It’s a good life, Aaron says. And it’s worth checking out, either in high school, trade schools, or as an apprenticeship. Even if you walk away, you’ll have learned a great deal, not just about the trade, but about yourself.

Find your fit in the building industry through a trade school near you.