Building a Long-Term Career in a Changing Industry

Oct 9, 2019

One of the three principles that guided Byron Hicks through his career in the construction industry is, “Work the metal, don’t let the metal work you.” It was instilled in him by his father, who was highly skilled in sheet metal fabrication. Byron followed in his footsteps and spent 47 years in the industry.

He graduated from high school in 1972 and wanted to become a professional musician. His band had some success, including 13 albums, a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, and the opportunity to cross paths with the Oak Ridge Boys. But once he got into his early 20s, Byron realized his goal of being a professional musician wasn’t going to happen. That’s when he became interested in sheet metal layout. He applied himself and found he was quite good at it.

His first job in the industry was with Environmental Air Systems (formerly Bullock Humble). Two friends who served in World War II together started the North Carolina-based company, and Byron’s father was one of their first employees.

“In my opinion, I had a leg up in the industry because I had a father who was highly skilled and would share his knowledge with me. Some of the other people in the field would teach you, and some of them would not, but I was willing to learn and listen to anyone with experience,” said Byron.

Byron worked as a foreman with the company until love brought him to Franklin County, VA, in 1998, and it wasn’t long before he met with G.J. Hopkins. He walked in the building, showed the company some of his drawings, and was able to get an interview. Byron accepted a position as a sheet metal layout mechanic, which he said was the best decision of this life.

“The first company I worked for was great. It was family-owned, they had competitive wages, and wonderful people, but that’s where it ended. The benefits were not there,” said Byron. “G.J. Hopkins is an employee-owned company with an employee stock ownership plan and benefits that are so much better.”

He has been with the company for 21 years now and is the Shop Fabrication Foreman. Byron is getting ready to “semi-retire” as he called it, and as he looks back at his career, he said the advent of technology was a game-changer for the industry. What took a long time to do by hand can now be done quickly by a computer.

“Everything in sheet metal layout is based on triangulation, geometry, and right triangles. We have software now that applies to nearly every fitting in sheet metal,” Byron said. “A person can sit at a computer, type in what kind of fitting they want, the application is applied, and the fitting is cut out on a plasma table.”

Some of the younger guys who work for Byron call him an old-timer, but he said the real old-timers are his father’s generation. While they were resistant to the new technology, Byron said he saw both sides of it, and now he sees it as a plus.

The one downside to the technology is there aren’t many people who still know how to do things the old-fashioned way. While it rarely happens, there was an incident recently where the computer couldn’t make a specialty fitting, so Byron stepped in and made it by hand.

Forty-seven years later, Byron still enjoys looking at a piece of flat sheet metal and turning it into a usable object. This skill came in handy when he was tasked with creating an efficient design for G.J. Hopkins’ new fabrication shop in 2011. He made scaled cardboard cutouts of all their machines, placed them on a drawing, and played around with them until he came up with an idea. The design was implemented, and the layout out at the shop is almost the same today.

The shop design was one of Byron’s favorite work-related accomplishments, but what he’s most proud of is the skill and knowledge he’s passed along to the younger workers.

“Hopefully, if they face a challenge after I fully retire from G.J. Hopkins, they’ll think back, a light will come on, and they will remember something I taught them years ago that will help solve their problem,” said Byron.

As Byron moves into semi-retirement, he looks forward to having more time to play music, volunteer with the Citizens on Patrol Program through the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, and continue collecting high-end Martin Guitars and vintage firearms.

And for those of you who are curious to know what Byron’s other life principles are:

“Measure twice, cut once.” – Ross Perot

“It takes less time to do a thing right than it does to explain why you did it wrong.”- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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At G.J. Hopkins, we work hard to make sure that our customers get the very best service every time. We know that time is money. That’s why we continue to invest in streamlining operations.

Assets like owning our fabrication shop, technicians trained in the latest, and cutting-edge Building Information Modeling techniques make it possible for us to deliver consistent, top-quality service that will save your company time and money.

Our mission as employee-owners is to be the preferred mechanical, electrical, and service contractor company by providing quality service to our customers and the community. To learn more about a career in construction with G.J. Hopkins, please visit GJHopkins.com/careers

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G.J. Hopkins has provided reliable service to commercial and industrial clients throughout Southwest Virginia since 1958. Our coverage areas include Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Roanoke, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe Counties as well as the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, Radford, Roanoke, and Salem.

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