Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Today, we turn the spotlight on Josh Zolin. Josh is the CEO of Windy City Equipment Service (WCE), a leading commercial facilities maintenance company specializing in HVAC, Refrigeration, and Kitchen Equipment. Josh began his journey in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm that was later converted into a school for aspiring film industry stunt performers. From a young age he was rolling cars, setting himself on fire, and jumping from five-story buildings. Josh then set his sights for sunny Arizona, to work alongside his dad as a commercial kitchen equipment technician.
Josh is also the published author of Blue is the New White, an eye-opening book which focuses on shattering misperceptions of skilled trades, as well as the host of the Blue is the New White podcast, exploring the industrial journeys of successful tradespeople from around the globe.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
I grew up on a farm, and a lot of people say, “Oh, well, that’s where you get your blue collar roots from,” but it wasn’t just a regular farm. My whole family is made up of stunt people in the film industry, and my grandfather was one of the pioneers who doubled for Charles Bronson. I’ve had this history, and that was kind of the path that was laid out for me.
Eventually, I found that what I thought was my passion was actually just what I knew best. That’s the environment I grew up in and that’s what I knew, but I just wasn’t passionate about it. The only thing I knew was that I had an entrepreneurial spirit. Meanwhile, my dad had moved out to Arizona about a year before I moved to California, and he had started his own business, Windy City Equipment. I got fed up with the stunt industry, so I called my dad and I said, “Dad, I’ve got no idea what you do for a living, but I want to be a part of it.” He welcomed me with open arms and showed me the ropes, and that’s how I got my start.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
Consistency, consistency, consistency. I joke all the time that I went from getting lit on fire to putting them out. But I’ve always had that drive and that hustle that has really helped in the trades, because I was constantly trying to get better at my craft. That’s how we turned this business into what it is today. Get up and do what you have to do, learn a little bit and do the same thing the next day. I would do a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more, and that compounds. It takes time, and some people will take less time than others, but as long as you stick to it… my dad said it best. He said, “The success rate is 100% as long as you never give up.” And that’s true.
What do the trades mean to you?
When I was growing up in high school, the trades weren’t outwardly bashed, they just weren’t mentioned. Especially not in the same conversation as a college education or anything like that – it was almost like they were invisible. Once I got into the business, the perception shift I had was really when we started bringing on more technicians, because we know blue collar trades can be very lucrative. It started with the money aspect of things, and then you start to realize the other aspects of the trades that present different opportunities for different people – like the travel involved and the satisfaction that you get when you arrive when something’s broken, and you leave when something’s fixed. People can’t choose an appropriate path that they deem successful unless they have all their options.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
That the trades are second tier. If you can’t cut it in college, you can always fall back on a trade, when it should be regarded in the same conversation as doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, or anything like that. That’s extremely difficult to change, because every parent wants what’s best for their kids, but they have a hard time admitting that they may not know what that is.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now, industry-wise?
I think it’s getting better. The monetary aspect of the trades has come to light a little bit more in the past few years, people are starting to understand how much money you can make in the trades. I’m a big believer that money will only get you so far – money is the hook, right? It’ll get you interested, but you have to know what else is out there to keep you interested. But maybe they still don’t want to do the work, because they’re under the impression that you’ve got to break your back for 50 years in order to see any of that money, so it’s the visibility into what the trades actually are. What can you realistically expect to do once you’re in the trades, and what do the opportunities look like as you progress through your career?
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
Learn everything that you possibly can never ever stop learning. I talk a lot about college, and sometimes people misconstrue that as I’m against education, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a big proponent of education and learning – just the right kind of education for the right kind of individual. The best thing that anybody can do when they’re entering into a trade is to act like a child with regard to curiosity. Be curious about everything. Seek to learn, don’t worry about looking stupid, don’t worry about impressing anybody or anything like that. I know that’s big in the trades, too, because everybody wants to do well, they want to impress the foreman, their supervisor – but the biggest thing that you can do is just absorb everything possible. If that means that you got to do stuff on your own time, like bringing parts home or reading material or going online and watching YouTube videos… but continue to learn and hone your skills all around the trades, not just this little window that you’re focused on.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
It’s funny, because my hobby is building the business. But I’d have to say I love spending time with my daughters. As long as I’m with them, it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing – whether it’s walking through the mall, playing in the pool or going to the park.
Our thanks to Josh Zolin for making time to share his story and insights with us.
Photo credits: Josh Zolin