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Notes on the Way: Matthew Miller: General Contractor

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Notes on the Way

Matthew Miller: General Contractor

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What’s your Church background?

I was born and raised in the Church, so I didn’t have that big “aha” moment where I stopped smoking cigarettes and threw out all my bacon. Only later when I grew up a little bit did I start asking questions about my beliefs. I’m still on that journey and asking questions; I believe stronger than I ever did before, but I have more questions. It’s like the more I learn, the more questions I have!

What do you do for a living? What drew you to this field?

I’m a general contractor, which means I can do everything from maintenance all the way up to building new homes from the ground up, though I’m usually somewhere in the middle—additions, remodels, bathroom remodels, helping an old lady install a storm door on her house.

I was drawn to it because I grew up fixing things with my dad. Whenever something broke we fixed it. I just love fixing things, and also the connections I make with people. Somebody will call me and ask if I can help them, and when I say yes, I can hear the excitement in their voice that they found somebody who answers the phone and can communicate clearly. When I come out and fix their problem, they’re just blown away; it’s like I have a superpower! It feels really good.

What has been your career path (i.e. how did you get there)?

I’ve never worried about work or what I was going to do. My dad instilled that in me. When I moved here (to Salem, Oregon) a guy in the Church was building houses, so I called him and asked if he could give me a job. I took it even though it was a pay cut, but for three years I learned how to build houses. Then when I started having kids, I needed more money, so I started doing maintenance on some rental properties, which was fun. Then a couple years after that, I had this urge to start my own business. I wasn’t anxious about it, because I tend to think it’ll all be fine, but it was definitely a leap of faith for my wife! At this point it’s been seven years and it’s going well.

Do you enjoy your work?

Besides all the things I mentioned already, another thing I love reminds me of that scripture: “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised” (Hebrews 5:14). A lot of business owners in the Church I’ve known have advised me to never hire people in the Church, or family members. I’m doing the opposite of that, hiring friends and family all the time. I’ve always wondered why they say that, and I think it’s because people don’t like having those hard conversations when an employee violates a rule or does something wrong. But I love that whenever a problem arises, I’m put in a position to have that awkward but crucial conversation, because it helps me grow and learn how to get better at doing that. If I weren’t in this position I wouldn’t be forced to have those conversations with people I already have a relationship with.

Why is that so important to you to have those types of difficult conversations?

I think those are the same skills we’ll need to have in God’s Kingdom. If we don’t know how to talk with each other, how will we judge the world? If there’s a matter between me and my employee, or church member, or friend, and we can’t solve it, what hope do we have to solve problems on a large scale in the world?

Have you ever felt like you didn’t enjoy your job at any point along the way? Have you ever made a job or career change? If so, what did you do to pivot to something different?

Yes, definitely. One in particular, when I was working for a property maintenance company, I loved the work but not the job anymore because the owner had created a toxic environment. After a while, it wore me down. My first approach was to keep trying, just to make sure I wasn’t a quitter. But after seven months, I decided to leave. I just put in my notice and went to work for a different company that paid more doing the same kind of work.

Was there a time where you were exploring what you liked and figured out you didn’t like a certain type of work?

After high school I went to community college. I had some friends who liked auto mechanic stuff, so I took a course to be an auto tech. About halfway through the course, I realized it was not what I wanted to do. I didn’t even finish the course, and instead just went to work. So I kind of got that out of my system way back then. I still feel like I can do anything. In some senses it’s a blessing, but it can also be a curse because it’s hard to choose. It’s easy to get distracted and start down no path at all, or to second-guess what I could be doing.

Does your work ever create potential conflicts with your faith?

Yes, in a couple of different ways. When I was just a small company, people would ask me to install their Christmas lights. I’d already be on the site doing something else and they’d offer me a little extra money to install their lights for them. In those instances, it was an opportunity to either say something or just pretend like it’s no big deal. I would say no, but then explain why. I looked at it as a chance to build a rapport with a client.

Now that I have sub-contractors and employees working for me, I’ve had to make sure they don’t work on the Sabbath or even the Holy Days during the Feast. I make it super clear that they won’t get paid if they work on a Sabbath, and if they do it anyway and I find out I’ll fire them. I give my employees paid days off on the Holy Days since it’s a day out of their week.

I just make sure, as best I can, to draw the line and set them up for success to avoid doing so. At the end of the day, though, I control what I can control and I don’t worry about the rest.

What explicit advice would you give to someone in junior high or high school about pursuing a career that’s fulfilling?

It would be to do something like a self-authoring program; find out where you see yourself in a few years, etc. There are aptitude tests to find out what you’re naturally good at and to help you find a path.

But generally, make the decision of what you want to do, regardless of what the stereotypes are, or what people think about it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do the same kind of work as you?

If you look at the trades, especially right now, there are so many holes opening up. Our society has made people think college and a desk job are the only ways to live your life. And because of that there is a lack of good workers. If anybody has inside of them a desire to go out and solve problems with a positive attitude, to show up and work and get a sense of accomplishment from that—that is a rare gem. For anybody who feels that way, you can get a job today in any of the trades. In smaller privately owned companies, you don’t have to go do an apprenticeship, or go to college or do any of that. If you’re 18 years old, you can go get a job and start making money today. I know that because I talk to my fellow contractors and they all need help. But everybody seems to be stoned or disinterested, or doesn’t show up. Yet the pay rates are higher than they’ve ever been; new guys who know almost nothing are starting at nearly $20 per hour. It’s crazy.

Even if you have no experience, you can get on-the-job training. I just hired a guy who’s 17, with zero experience. The fact that he came to the job and is working is something. And if you keep at it, within a couple years, you will have the skills to have your own business if you want it.

I think the best places to find jobs are super small companies when you’re starting out. They can be harder to find, so look up a list of all contractor businesses in your state, which is publicly available information. You could also look for Craigslist or Facebook listings; the small companies will post completed jobs that they’re proud of on Facebook, and just try reaching out to them privately to see if they’re hiring, or if they know anybody who’s hiring. I’ve had people do that with me and they’ve gotten jobs that way.

Thanks so much for your time, Matt!