Becoming a Detailer

Whenever I meet someone new and they ask what I do for a living, my response of “steel detailer” always garners blank stares and that inevitable question – ”so you clean cars?”. Now if I said I was an engineer, or an architect, or a construction project manager, everybody would know what that is and how one of those careers comes to be.

Architects and engineers go through years of school, internships, and licensing; construction managers often have a degree, years of experience and possibly even certification of their own. In high school, your guidance counselor may even point you toward one of these professions.

But what about steel detailers? People outside the industry don’t have a clue who we are. And if that’s the case, how does anyone ever become such a thing? The story I hear over and over again a is “I fell into it”.

Many detailers I’ve talked to come from one of two paths. First, they are born into it by having a fabrication shop or detailing company in the family that wants to hire all the family members that are “good at math”. Second, they are approached by friends or acquaintances who are already in the business looking for those same math-inclined people but from within a larger circle of friends. It’s like a private club by invitation only.

It is not a job you see regularly posted in your local want ads. In fact, when we first posted a job listing, all the responses we received were from confused automotive detailers. Most of the job postings I see are on sites already dedicated to steel detailing. Sometimes I hear from corporate recruiters looking to sell me someone with experience. But these deal with existing detailers, how does a new detailer come into being?

My own story is similar to the others I hear. After high school, I went to college to become a software engineer. I loved programming and my high school guidance counselor explained to me that I didn’t need to worry about the student loans, I’d be making a fortune once I got out of college. Wrong on both parts.

I had the unfortunate problem of getting into college for this field just as the tech bubble burst in the early 2000’s. Could not even find an internship working for free. After that, I bounced around through a few jobs, eventually landing in a machine shop as a CNC mill operator.

My love of programming served me well there and I learned a lot of skills that would prove useful as a detailer later. Not only did I learn a lot about reading part drawings and quality control checking, but I also taught myself how to program the CNC mills and lathes which permitted me to move up in the company and become involved in their more interesting projects.

One day, I stepped out my back door and saw my neighbor across the yard with his dog. Turns out, Nick Coffee moved into the townhouse behind mine and we shared a property line. We went to grade school together, so he already knew I had strong math and programming skills. His family ran a steel fabrication shop in the city and he was a detailer there. He asked me if I would be interested in coming out to interview for a detailing position (and then had to explain to me what a detailer was). My career as a detailer started shortly thereafter.

Like most every other detailer I’ve met, he was born into it, and I was a friend of an existing member of the club. How did you get into steel detailing?

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