How I “Chose” My Career

Did you consider any other career? How did you choose?

Like everyone else, I guess, I daydreamed and fantasized all through my youth about what “career” might await me, but in real life, it was all pretty much serendipity that led me to where I am today.

When I was at St. Augustine’s, I was a shining star as a student. I pretty much just understood the lessons as they were being presented to the class and rarely had to do too much real studying. Seeing this, my sixth grade nun suggested to my parents that I take the Latin School test, as the more rugged curriculum would keep me more engaged.

Unfortunately, by the seventh grade, I had developed zero study skills, and this became an issue at Boston Latin, where the classes were filled with bright, hardworking little shining stars from all over the city. Also, being lazy, I just hoped some magic spell would kick in and I would not have to pound the books and do 4+ hours of homework every night like my fellow students.

This, unfortunately, did not happen.

My marks quickly sank, I began to fail, but I struggled on. I had to repeat 8th grade. Even after that, I continued to flounder and was finally asked to transfer out.

Dad wanted me to go to South Boston High, which I dreaded. All of the enemies I had made over a lifetime in Southie awaited me there and so it wasn’t my first choice.

By then, I had started hanging out in Dorchester and most of my new friends went to English High or to Boston Tech. I talked my Dad into letting me go to English and I transferred to the EHS Freshman Annex at Egleston Square in Jamaica Plain.

Every morning, I would ride the bus to Broadway, take the train to meet my friends at Washington and then the old elevated Orange Line to Egleston Station. I was with friends there, and the school work was much easier.

I didn’t know it then, but the city had recently decided to use EHS as the destination of choice for “problem” boys, and the glory days of “America’s First Public High School (1822)” were rapidly slipping behind us.

I pretty much coasted until my senior year on knowledge previously accumulated at BLS. I went from a dullard back to shining star without lifting a finger, but the experience really soured me on education and I never seriously considered college.

When I (barely) graduated, the Post Office and the electric, gas, and phone companies were all hiring for what were considered lifetime jobs at good wages. I wound up at the phone company for two years and change, until I felt unappreciated by the company and abruptly quit in a fit of adolescent pique. I was unaware that the world had changed, the economy had tanked, and I was about to be unemployed for about ten months.

I was 21 and collecting unemployment, so I could make my car payments (yellow 1970 VW Bug), but that was only temporary money. I needed a job.

And then the perfect one appeared.

My friend Charlie worked for the Boston Schools as a Junior Custodian, and it seemed like a sweet gig. He emptied a bunch of wastebaskets, swept a few floors and had hours of free time during the day. I used to visit him at school, and we would sneak out to play tennis for a few hours and no one cared. This life called to me.

I was living with my Mom in Quincy by then, so I applied to their school department and became a civil service junior custodian. I did that for seven years. Besides two weeks of vacation, we were immediately entitled to 15 sick days per year and 3 personal days, so essentially, I could take up to 18 extra days off just by lifting the phone. And the unused days accumulated, year to year.

Charlie and I played a lot of tennis those first few years.

Of course, the pay was sub-crappy and the job negatively prestigious, but I put up with it for the perks of reading all day and not having to show up that often.

By then I had started to date Betty. She never put the janitor job down, (she was at the Phone Company by now) and was never anything but supportive, but I knew she thought I was selling myself short. We dated for three years before getting married, and we even bought a home in Avon, all while I worked in the schools.

Then one summer day at work, a guy named Steve Janshego was upgrading the intercom in the school office and I got to chatting with him. Over a week or two, we became pretty friendly and I guess I mentioned how unhappy I was with the money I was making, compared to the teacher’s salaries.

He told me he was the Electronics instructor at Quincy Junior College and that I should go there and get an associate degree.

“Look around at these teachers. Good people, but a lot of them couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a schematic. They make more than you because they have degrees. And most of the male teachers got teaching degrees just because they had to stay in school or go to Nam.”

Then he said the words that swept me off my feet.

“You do know that you can attend QJC for free, because you’re a resident, right?”

One evening soon after, I mentioned to Betty that I was thinking of going nights to QJC. Her face just lit up.

“How long will that take?”

“Maybe four years.”

“Why not go full time while I work and do it in two?”

“Are you sure?”

“I was hoping for this day.”

So, I signed up; from my Mom’s address in Quincy Point, because we were living in Avon by then.

It was a great experience and I got my ASET two years later. I made Summa Cum Laude, of course, because bringing a less than stellar report card home to Betty was not something I ever wanted to do.

I got a job as a tech at IEC, a centrifuge manufacturer, out in Needham. My boss, Bob Johnson, was about ten years older than me and easy to work for. We would plan offsite educational meetings and then go play tennis or basketball at the Y.

The company was really sketchy, for a big corporation (I thought that unusual at the time. I was young.), and they would do things like rent trucks to load all our unfinished centrifuges in, then drive them endlessly around Rt128 until the auditor left. We evidently claimed the unassembled parts as “shipped units”. Got to protect that stock price.

Anyway, I was looking for a job closer to home, so after a year or so, I interviewed for and then joined, the Engineering Department at Electroswitch, on June 22, 1981. One of the perks that lured me was that ESCO would reimburse me for any college course I took toward a vaguely related degree.

I began to attend Northeastern nights, after work. Then, in 1986, I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Technology. I had sunk to only Magna Cum Laude by this time, what with the house, the job, the two little kids and all. Still, not bad for a BLS dropout.

So that’s what brought me to my “career” at Electroswitch. It was close to home and would pay for my bachelor’s degree. But after that,  we were sure it would be on to greener pastures for freshly minted engineer Jeff.

But that never happened. I got to know everyone and made some pretty close work-friends. I was the new Product Engineer for the most sophisticated product line and slowly learned the job and established close and mutually helpful relationships with key people who affected my work life.

If I complained enough, I got a few extra bucks a week, or a subtle title upgrade, or the occasional perk. And I enjoyed being seen as one of the more knowledgeable, dependable people on staff.

I readily admit that I liked hearing, “I’ve no idea. Go ask Jeff. He knows that technical stuff.” I don’t think I was a great engineer, but I knew my product lines cold. And we had plenty of guys on staff who could advise on machine clearances and tooling costs. They were all friends of mine.

I had passed once already on the chance to move into Sales. Because Betty was still working, and the kids were in school, being away one week or more per month was impossible.

But when the opportunity to move from Engineering Administrator to Regional Sales Manager came up a second time, Betty had retired, and I was ready.

One of the few caveats they had was that I was the Sales Dept’s best friend in Engineering, and they would lose that. I explained that I would be bringing along my expertise, and also able to act as liaison to the guys I had spent 15 years with in Engineering. I got the job and my salary essentially doubled.

Then I got to travel all over Canada and the US, everywhere but the South, piling up frequent flyer miles (back when they had value), doing trade show presentations, visiting cool factories and meeting smart, innovative people with interesting stories to tell.

It was a fun 15 years, but by 2010 or so, I was ready to retire. The kids had grown up well, and they had pretty much left to follow their own impressive ambitions. Electroswitch had also changed ownership, and the fun there was rapidly evaporating away.

We paid off the mortgage and then agonized over spreadsheets of future earnings and potential SS payments until, finally, I put my papers in for January 6, 2012.

So that’s how I got here. Nothing remarkable, my “career path” was pretty ad hoc, as I just tried to improve our lot incrementally, not with any grand plan in mind.

If you’re lucky, (as I’ve always been) and manage to surround yourself with bright, supportive people (again, lucky Jeff), I think you can usually find your way ahead together.

It worked for us, but I also know of some really fine people for whom doing the right thing has not insulated them from a life of medical or financial or child-rearing hardship. So, there’s that. There’s no magic bullet.

I know we’ve been fortunate.

This entry was posted in Autobiography, General Life, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How I “Chose” My Career

  1. Ralph Honegger says:

    Hi Jeff.
    I enjoyed reading your Life story , I was lucky to be a little part of it , traveling eastern Canada, all the way to St. John’s Newfoundland or as far north as Rouin Noranda Quebec, when we saw a Bear crossing the Highway as you where talking to Betty on the cell phone. Touching the Stanley Cup during the all-star week in Montreal. You are a good man ! Keep it up.

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