This High School Dropout Found His Path in the Trades. Now He Makes $100K

A crane operator stands next a crane's large hook.
Freddie Cruz pulls down six figures as a crane operator for Beyel Bros. in Tampa, Fla. The job doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

After dropping out of high school, Freddie Cruz found himself delivering the same milk he drank in the school lunch rooms. It was an inauspicious end to what once appeared to be a bright future in football — college and all.

“I didn’t finish high school because I didn’t have the aspiration to do it anymore,” said the 44-year-old Cruz, who played running back before a brutal career-ending injury. “I gave up.”

Now, eight years into a career as a crane operator, Cruz pulls down six figures doing something he loves all day. That dream job placed on The Penny Hoarder’s Best Jobs of 2019 that Don’t Require a Bachelor’s Degree.

“I wish I would’ve known about this business years ago,” he says. “I probably would’ve been on the verge of retiring now.”

Trade Jobs Offer Endless Opportunities

Cruz always dabbled in the trades. When he was 19, he briefly worked as a carpenter on a job site in Tampa before taking up trucking full-time.

He made plenty of money on the road, but now sees there would have been more opportunity — and less time away from family — if he had stayed in a career in the traditional trades.

Some of the jobs with the lowest wage gap between men and women are in the trades. In fact, analysts look to women to make up for the shortfall of workers in the construction industry.

Of the top 25 jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow the fastest over the next decade, 20% are in the trades. If you look at careers that don’t require a college degree, that number jumps to more than half.

And as Cruz’ experience shows, you can haul in more than $100,000 a year in these types of jobs. In 2017, we spoke to an electrician who also makes six figures.

One of the biggest perks, Cruz says, is that while you’re training to become a full-time, credentialed crane operator (or other similar skilled labor occupation) you can still make more than $60,000 as an apprentice. That’s what he made for the four years he trained under senior crane operators.

“The funny thing is, you’re getting paid to pay your dues, which is awesome,” Cruz says.

Sure beats student loan debt, right?

Despite the pros of working in the trades, they remain an often-overlooked option — and a well-kept secret. Cruz only heard about the sweet life as a crane operator through word of mouth.

“The money’s there. I just don’t think we publicize it enough,” he says. “It’s word of mouth — somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody gets you in.”

Trade Jobs Offer Multiple Entry Points Bypassing College

One of Cruz’s lifelong friends came to him with a tip about 10 years ago: There’s lots of cash to be made as a crane operator. Cruz and another friend (the three were truck drivers at the time) laughed him off.

By the time the friend got an apprentice job through the local union a year later, Cruz was intrigued. But, the only open positions would have required more than an hour commute, so he turned it down.

“A year and a half goes by and the guy finally calls again and says that this is the last time I’m going to offer you the job, take it or leave it,” he says. “I said I’ll take it, and it was the best move I made.”

Checking in at your local crane operators’ union is the best way to get started in this career, as it is with a number of trade careers. From there, it can take up to a year for the organization to secure an apprenticeship with a local company.

Once you land an apprenticeship, you spend four years working your way up to running the full rig. Along the way, you’ll learn the minutiae of crane upkeep, along with basic operation. Don’t expect your supervisor to babysit.

Cruz was told to arrive at his first jobsite eight years ago at 6:30 a.m. He got there on time, but was immediately harangued by the senior crane operator — the machine should’ve been tuned up, cleaned and ready to roll by 6:30… And where was his coffee?

But that tough love is necessary when you plan to run a 150,000-pound machine capable of killing your coworkers.

“When I finally became an operator, he was one of the first guys who came up to me and said ‘congratulations, I knew you could do it,’” Cruz says.

Since Cruz entered the field, crane operating trade schools have popped up around the U.S. Many offer training and certification in six months, but Cruz is adamant about going the apprentice route and getting on-the-job experience.

You will still need a certification through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators in most states.

Trade Jobs Can Make Every Day a New Adventure

Cruz has helped tear down a water tower, pulled a barge out of the water, replaced nuclear plant turbines and recovered the body of a landscaper who had been crushed by a fallen branch.

The next two times he went out on a job after that, he could barely bring himself to get into a crane. He moved some material with a forklift to avoid getting into the cab again.

Pro Tip

Before diving into one trade, reach out to a local construction firm or union and ask to see a job site. See what looks interesting and matches your strengths. Then ask to shadow someone on the job.

“I was trying to figure out a way not to do the job,” Cruz says. “I was afraid to get in (the crane) for some reason.”

But eight years into this career, he has learned to cope with the stresses and gained perspective.

After Cruz dropped out of high school, he was left with no prospects and a pregnant girlfriend. His father, who owned a cleaning company and worked as a truck driver and butcher, said he “wasn’t going to raise a bum.”

Cruz’ father didn’t live long enough to see everything his son achieved, even without a diploma. Cruz can give his kids a life that his father couldn’t afford for him — and he considers that the definition of success.

“I’m sure that he would say his son never graduated from high school, never pursued his dream as a football player, but at the end of the day he’s making a six-figure income,” Cruz says. “I guess he didn’t do too bad for himself.”

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.