QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
A Winding Career Path
An entrepreneur works his way into quality
by Tim Behr
Career paths can sometimes change quite unexpectedly. Some people take great care in steering their career development, only to learn that factors beyond their control can have a greater influence on life.
I graduated high school and went directly into the workforce at 18. My first job lasted almost 12 years, so it must have been a good fit for me. At that job, I worked for a surveying firm, where I had hands-on learning opportunities. I understood concepts, but my math skills had always been weak.
Growing up, my parents always stressed entrepreneurship with their children—we sold eggs, fishing worms, old bottles and anything we could find at various flea markets and antique shops throughout our childhood years. This drive to have an independent business was hard-wired into us.
After 12 years at the surveying firm, my independent streak took over, and I left a good, stable job at the civil engineering firm to strike it rich on my own. I purchased two tow trucks and opened a towing business.
At first, things progressed well. Not long after, however, the recession of the early 1990s arrived, and the revenue from the towing operations dried up. On top of the recession, the state imposed much tougher rules on the towing industry, which drove smaller operators out of business.
So, I sold the trucks and went to work for a condominium complex as a maintenance manager (anything to pay the bills). Here, my future career began to develop, although I didn’t see it coming at the time.
One of my dreaded duties at the complex was running the water supply. This required a complicated chlorination system in three wells with a huge storage tank. Every day, chlorine levels needed to be checked, pumps cleaned, records kept, wells switched and pressure maintained. It was a dirty, smelly job, made worse when I learned the condominium actually paid an outside person to perform this job (who clearly wasn’t doing it).
At this time, I learned the value of a certification. Six months later, I became a certified water systems operator and proudly submitted my quote for performing this job. Unfortunately, it was three times higher than the current operator.
I learned a lesson that still holds true: Those who don’t understand what’s involved in producing a quality product or service undervalue it. I worked at the condominiums for four years, obtaining two certifications in water supply and distribution, and an armed guard license. By now, I believed in casting a wide net.
Having a ball
At this time in my life, I was the proud father of a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, and I was anxious to pass on my childhood experience of entrepreneurship to them. My son enjoyed playing paintball, and we talked of opening a paintball store. I knew of a small storefront available, and we were in business one credit card bill later.
The year was 1997, and paintball was all the rage, allowing us to move to a bigger facility a year later. Here, another twist of fate intervened—a paintball company asked me to evaluate some of their products that were experiencing some quality issues. I did a full evaluation and published the findings on the internet.
A few years later, in 1999, paintball was fading fast. My son had his driver’s license now and was working elsewhere. I closed the store in early 2000 and offered myself to any company I could find.
I was in luck—the quality control inspector at a nearby extrusion plant had just left for another job, and someone was needed in a hurry. My engineering background made me the best qualified candidate, so there I was—a quality control inspector overnight.
There, I burned, melted, twisted and dented windows, doors, fence posts and everything else we produced. I was introduced to statistical process control, which my boss patiently taught me. Some of the math I had difficulty with in school started to make sense.
Though I held a quality title, I still didn’t see quality as a career. But, at about that time, I discovered Juran’s Quality Handbook on a dusty shelf during my last year at the plant. That book changed the course of my life. I learned there was so much more involved than just inspecting parts.
Quality was a personal commitment to excellence, and it was something I felt strongly about. Production started to slow and the plant was sold twice while I was there. By now, I knew the warning signs of a fading business, so, for the first time, I started looking for a job in the quality field.
I was hired a short time later to work in the quality department of a modular home-manufacturing facility. While learning the ropes there, I thought it important that I identify myself with quality. I joined ASQ and officially became a member of a recognized quality organization.
Shortly after, I learned about the organization’s various certifications, and a whole new world opened up. I was amazed at the variety and depth the quality universe encompassed. There were so many opportunities!
I resolved to become certified in as many disciplines as I could. While I was at the modular home manufacturer, I obtained four ASQ certifications in three years: certified quality technician, quality improvement associate, quality inspector and Six Sigma Green Belt.
Then the economy intervened once again, and the housing market began its decline. There were more warning signs, so I was back to job searching. This time, however, I was prepared. I was still employed, so I floated my résumé and waited for a bite. Several months later, a machine shop with railroad industry products approached me, and, after some deliberation, I once again opted for a new direction.
Only in the quality field can you employ such diverse backgrounds as extrusion, processing, construction, building codes and manufacturing. I have been in this particular industry more than two years now. Along the way, I picked up another three ASQ certifications: certified quality process analyst, manager of quality/organizational excellence and calibration technician. My goal is to obtain another two or three certifications.
After 10 years of working directly in quality, I still find it amazing to see the number of positions and areas of expertise available. The diversity is exhilarating, the challenges are frequent, and the opportunities are vast.
Each piece of new technology introduces fresh prospects. We now have quality specialists in every niche, and as new regulations and standards appear, more new positions become available. It is certainly a growing field that offers something for anyone who is willing to jump in.
Someday, I might consider becoming a consultant. Then, my lifelong ambition of independent entrepreneurship will meet up with my career once again.
Tim Behr is a quality assurance manager in regulatory compliance at Hudson Machine Works Inc. in Brewster, NY. He is an ASQ member and a certified calibration technician, quality process analyst, manager of quality/organizational excellence, mechanical inspector, quality manager, quality technician and quality improvement associate.