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Four career changers share how they succeeded in a new trade.

Matt McCallister

In January 2021, Matt McCallister, 36, was laid off. He’d been working as the manager of a flight school at New Castle Airport, and COVID had ground business there to a halt. So, he spent some quality time with his two young daughters, and he did some research. He asked himself: What industry is really going to be booming in the next 10 years? What won’t I be laid off from in case something like this ever happens again? The answer, for the Wilmington resident, was HVAC. He enrolled at the Delaware Skills Center, and before classes even began, the center had gotten him some work in the field so he could start to build his experience.

In September 2021, McCallister started his training — and by February 2022, he had started a new career. “I actually ended the class a little early because [my employer] needed me to start,” he says.

The Delaware Skills Center, based in New Castle, is an adult vocational training center that falls under the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District. It offers classes in the electrical, HVAC, carpentry and welding trades, and also provides training and licensure for nurses and nursing assistants. For McCallister, the HVAC-centered experience in the classroom led directly to job opportunities.

“They have a bunch of companies that need people and they pull people from class,” he says. “So I went on a couple of interviews, and Avon Grove Charter School had a position for a maintenance tech. I applied for that and they actually hired me to be the building and grounds supervisor. So I really fast- forwarded five or 10 years by taking this job — it was a golden opportunity. It’s really a fun job; I get to go around and fix stuff all day. It’s not just HVAC, it’s everything — it’s a school, so it’s plumbing, HVAC, fixing tables. I do everything.”

McCallister has a marketing degree from Wilmington University and before running the flight school, he’d worked in marketing, sales and home remodeling. Looking back, he sees those experiences as positive building blocks — but what he’s doing now, he considers his real career. “I really wasn’t fulfilling my potential,” he says. “Having kids now, it’s more responsibility. You just want to take care of them, so you put more effort into finding your career job — and I found it, and everything just fell into place, and I couldn’t be more grateful for Delaware Skills Center. They really paved the way for me to have a successful career change.”

Not everyone who got laid off because of COVID landed on their feet so quickly — asked what advice he’d give to others looking to change careers, or to find their most meaningful career, McCallister says it comes down to the reputation you build for yourself over time. “The main thing,” he says, “is it pays off to know people, even just throughout your life. Be cordial to everybody; always ask questions. That way, people will get to know you and you will have connections.”

Zach Singer
Zach Singer, 33, is a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase & Co., where he focuses primarily on improving user experience around opening digital bank accounts. For years before starting at JPMorgan, Singer had worked at ShopRite and, for a spell, as a Lyft driver. He had kept his love for coding on the side — it was, he says, a hobby.

“In my early twenties,” Singer says, “I found some software focused on making [role-playing] computer games. My intro into coding as a hobby really came about from using and making plug-ins, which are small program modifications that help developers add features to their games.” Seeing people take his code and use it to further their projects, he explains, was very rewarding. “I still give back to the coding community to this day, and it provides a sort of real-time benchmark for my progress as a programmer. I can look back and see my old code, I can answer questions that I remember asking myself, and in that way I can see that I’ve grown. More importantly, to me, I can give back to the place where I feel like I got my start.”

Over the years, Singer started to notice coding friends turning the hobby into a career. Then, he met a few people who had graduated from the software developer academy Zip Code Wilmington; they’d had positive experiences with the program and with getting work afterwards. “I realized I could do something I loved enough to do for free, but get paid to do it as my job,” Singer says. In June 2021, he started in Zip Code’s Java track. In addition to the technical training, Singer found the professional development lessons were particularly helpful.

“We learned a lot about how to have a successful interview, about how to work on teams, and so much more that went outside of just programming,” Singer says. “With a mostly blue-collar work history, I was a little nervous about making the transition into the professional world. Zip Code took good care of me, however, and by the end I was more than ready to step into a tech role.”

Tarick Sam
In the past, Tarick Sam, 40, had worked as a real estate agent and a security guard. Then, he spent some time working in residential service, mainly fixing oil heaters. Today, he works in commercial HVAC for Newport-based Worth & Company.

“I wanted to do something different,” Sam says. “The residential company I was working with did primarily oil heat, oil burners. If you’re working on an oil burner, it gets messy. It’s dirty work. After a while, you could only take so much of that stuff, so I wanted out, and I decided to try commercial. It’s no oil burners, it’s more money, and the schedule is a little more flexible.”

While the catalyst for Sam’s career change was the messy work, the vehicle for it was a four-year apprenticeship through the Delaware Skills Center. Now, instead of traveling to six or eight houses a day, he typically works at one commercial site, and he finds the work more varied and interesting.

“Before I got into this trade, I didn’t have any mechanical skills. I was completely ignorant to it,” Sam says, noting that it was his training at DSC that first showed him he could learn those skills and put them to good use. “That’s when I started learning the trade, and the unique thing about HVAC is, you learn a little bit about all the other trades. You learn a little electrical, a little plumbing, even some carpentry for when you are doing installs. Delaware Skills Center enabled me to get a position in a company where I can learn even more. The course was completely free — I didn’t have to spend a dime out of my pocket to learn a whole new trade.”

Doug Mulrine
Doug Mulrine used to work in chemicals, mainly running customer service and cleaning at commercial laundries, pools, spas and kitchens. Before that, he worked for a time in food distribution, and before that, he was in chemicals again. None of it, he now says, was quite right.

“I was not really happy with where I was, and was doing some reflection on myself,” Mulrine says. “I always sort of
just wanted a job and tried to mold myself to the job. I never really invested in myself; I invested in the company. I wound up getting really stressed out. Now, I really wanted to invest in myself and that’s where the Delaware Skills Center came in.”

In 2021, Mulrine, 39, left the job in chemicals and enrolled in a 12-week HVAC program at the Delaware Skills Center. By early 2022, he was working in residential and commercial HVAC with Anthony Zunino, Inc. By the end of his old job, Mulrine explains, he rarely had a day off without a call from a boss or a required meeting, and a corporate restructuring left him feeling like his day-to-day work was about to get even more difficult. Now, he notes, “I’m feeling very much relieved. The 12 weeks of training gave me a good basis to start. I am not going into anything blindly. I have a basic understanding of the job, I can invest in myself and have a little bit of confidence in myself.”

In a way, the work in HVAC is a step closer to his roots, as Mulrine grew up in a trade family. His brother is an electrician, his great uncles were contractors, and a close family friend was a plumber. Mulrine says he encourages young people
to consider what they really want to do rather than stay in whatever job comes along if it’s not a great fit. Also, it’s okay if a traditional college path is not right for you.

“Two-year, four-year schools, they’re not for everybody, for one reason or another,” he says. “The finances might not be there. It might not be where you see yourself. The Skills Center really helps with that, to get you involved in the trades. At the very least, you will have the knowledge to further yourself. You might not have to spend the 20 years on the job that I did before I really decided to invest in myself.”

 

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