Photo of a faucet with water running.

Plumber on a Mission: Caleb Iler of Journeymen Plumbing

This week, we continue our occasional series of interviews with Christians about their work. Our guest is Caleb Iler, co-owner and founder of Journeymen Plumbing. (See our previous interview with Dan Bovey, pastor and landscaper, about bivocational ministry.) Caleb tells how he got into plumbing and shares his thoughts on treating customers right, being on mission, staying sane as an entrepreneur, and rethinking education and the trades.

Photo of a faucet with water running.

How did you get started in plumbing?

I think I was 14 when I went to my first job—and it was mostly just helping a friend dig up a sewer. It was a guy from church; all the guys in the first company I worked with were from my church. My older brother had worked with the company, on and off, digging up some sewers. He went to college and got too busy for it. So I was like, “Well, hey, you could try the younger brother!” So there I was. They basically handed me a shovel and said, “Hold this, don’t touch anything.”

I was like, “Let me know what to do.”
They’d say, “Hey, go get this.”
I’d say, “I don’t know what that is.”
They’d say, “Alright, I’ll teach you what that is.” It was learning on the job.

So I started doing that—not even part time. My boss would call up every once in a while. Being homeschooled, I could drop school and go do it. My parents were very much like, “Yep, go learn, go learn. We’ll catch up on school stuff tomorrow.” And so he’d call me and say, “Hey, you want to dig up a sewer tomorrow?” And we changed my schedule around and I’d go dig up a sewer.

I did that for a little while, and then he was like, “Hey, you want to go on some house calls and learn how to do water heaters and stuff?” So I started doing that. And again: “Hold this tool. Clean this for me. Run outside. Grab this.” You know, just little little things like that. I did that for maybe two years, on and off, from about 16 to 18.

So then at 18, I asked if he would apprentice me. And he was like, “I just hired my son-in-law. But give me a little bit of time here.” (In the state of Illinois, you cannot have two beginning apprentices at the same time, unless they’re your own kids.) So he basically had to get his son-in-law to his third year, and then he could start me. So I did some other stuff for two years. He called me up and was like, “Hey, are you still interested?” I said, “Yep,” turned in some notices and, and went gung-ho at it. Boy, that would have been 2014. And I haven’t looked back since.

I love it. It’s great work. It’s hard work. It changes every day.

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I just wanted to do some different things. And I had some frustrations and such—not like how he handled it; I loved working for my old company; it was a great company, a great group of guys. But I just wanted to do things differently. So I thought, “Well, either they have to change at this company, or you have to start your own company.” My wife and I sat down and we’re like, “Hey, let’s do this.” So we started it.

Plumbing is not the most glamorous of jobs. But all of us benefit from it every single day, multiple times a day. How do you think about the meaning of your work, the dignity of your work, and how important it is?

Well, you definitely can’t outsource plumbing. That was one of the things we looked at as we were starting this: Hey, it’s not going anywhere. You can’t you can’t outsource it; you can’t send it anywhere else.

Like I said before, I love it. It’s great work. It’s hard work. In the interim, when I was waiting for him to apprentice me, I tried window washing and coaching gymnastics. The window washing killed me because it was just the same windows every day. It had some pros and cons, but it was just too much. With plumbing, every water heater is the same, but the house is different. The people are different. You get to meet different people. I love it. 

How does your Christian faith influence the way you do your work?

I mean, just the ethics to begin with. We picked Journeymen Plumbing as our name. “Journeyman” is the licensure you’re required to hold in Illinois: you do four years of in-the-field training, then you go to the state, you pass their test, then you’re a plumber. When you pass the test, they give you your Journeyman Plumber card. That’s when you’re big time.

Some guys don’t do that; they just have guys who do the work unlicensed. My attitude is, “Well, look, if you don’t have the licensure, you really can’t do this.” Our promise is in our name, that everybody is going to be a Journeyman Plumber, or working towards that licensure. 

So that definitely plays into it. But even in pricing, and practice, and the way you’re running things, you don’t just take a shortcut. Nope, we are doing this right. One of our mottos is “Service Before Sales.” If you need something, I’m going to sell it to you. But if you don’t really need it—“Hey, you could put this in, you could not”—that’s up to you. I’m not here to sell you anything you don’t want or don’t need.

But if there’s something like—“This is a big deal, you really should do this”—I’m going to let you know on that. But I’m not commission-based. I’m not here to just rip you off and get on to the next one. We’re trying to create customers for life. We’re trying to change the stereotype of a kind of nasty, grungy plumber. We want people to trust us. The Christian mindset definitely plays into that as we’re interacting with customers.

One thing that we talk about at Mission Central is the idea of mission, that God sends us to do his work, even in our everyday lives. What’s your take on that? How do you think of your work as an entrepreneur and a business owner and a plumber, as being connected to God’s mission in the world?

I get to meet a ton of people. I walk in their house, and they are trusting me to take care of probably the biggest investment they’ve made in their home. It starts with just the care that we put into the home.

Also, when we come into the job, we’re not cussing. People have made comments about that, like, “Hey, you guys aren’t cussing down here.” I’ve worked with other contractors who have picked up on it. We were on this big construction site, and guys would get mad, and you’d hear hammers getting chucked around. I got frustrated. But I wouldn’t just immediately start cussing and losing my mind. People noticed that.

To me, that’s one of the easiest things: just to stand apart. I’ve had a few people ask about it. Literally, last week, I had a guy pray for me. It was really cool that he could tell the difference. I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something, right.” He could tell there’s something different about this guy. He asked, “Are you a believer?” I’m like, “Yep, I’m a believer.” He goes, “Oh, can I pray for you?” I’m like, “Of course.”

It’s just setting ourselves apart, being different. I don’t walk in and hand them a tract and smack them in the face with Jesus. But you just try to stand apart.

I’m not there to minister. But if I can, I will. We’ve had opportunities arise. With my old company, my coworker and I prayed for a couple of people just with what they were going through. You could tell they were going through something and that this plumbing issue was the last straw.

My old coworker was really good about that; he could see that in people. And he would just say, “Hey, can I pray for you real quick?” And people were blown away. It’s just a little thing that you can do, planting a little seed, maybe that someone else will harvest later. You get to meet people, you care for them, and see what God does.

For an entrepreneur, things can feel fragile when they’re getting started. You have to talk through financial risks with your family and figure out what you’re going to do. So what helps you stay motivated and stay mentally healthy in all of those ups and downs? How is your faith part of that?

I feel like the easy answer is “Jesus.” [Laughs.]

Definitely my wife.

You have times when you doubt. Is the phone going to ring? Are the calls going to come in? And time and time again, even while we were deciding to do this, there were confirmations, multiple times. In church, someone would call something out like, “If someone’s out there thinking about maybe starting a business, and how they are going to bless the church. . .”

That was our prayer: if we just hand God the keys to the business, what’s he going to do? And trying to constantly not take the keys back, but keep giving them to him. We had multiple confirmations from different people. My wife came back from a women’s conference at our church and was like, “So guess what happened today? God was speaking to me.” That happened three different times. So that was when we said, “Okay, let’s go.”

As far as the worries of starting a new business: We’ve had so many times where we’d have a slow week. She’s like, “Hey, what do we have going on for the week?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve got a job on Tuesday, and I’ve got a job on Thursday.” And it’s Sunday. And by Monday, I’d get like two, three calls for Monday, and have another two more come in for Tuesday. And then by Wednesday, I’m booked out the rest of the week, and I just worked all week. And it was like, “Oh, my goodness, you know, great. Now we’re going to pay the mortgage; we’re still okay.” It  was just really cool to see.

There were a couple times when we tried to take the keys back from God like, “No, no, we’re gonna control this.” And then one of us would stop and go, “Hang on. What are we doing right now? And why are we doing it?” Then we’d stop, refocus, hand the keys back to God. And boom, the week would be booked out. And it’s just like—Wow, it’s really cool what God does when you just trust him. This whole season of our life has just been, “Trust God, it will be okay.” It’s really cool to see him move in that.

With plumbing in particular, it’s not the kind of business model where somebody signs up for a monthly subscription. It feels like a “faith challenge” kind of vocation. Because you’ve got to trust that the business will be there, even though you can’t predict exactly when or where.

Yes. Is the phone going to ring today? You don’t know; you’ve just got to trust God and wait for it.

A lot of our jobs are based on other people’s unfortunate circumstances. Usually what keeps me going is people having leaking, flooding, and so on. You don’t want to pray for other people’s misfortune, but that’s what most of our work is. That’s service.

Let’s talk about the trades more broadly. There are fewer people entering the trades. I grew up in a Christian context where people talked a lot about “college readiness,” and there wasn’t an equally big push for thinking about the trades as a valid option. So as Christians, how should we think about the trades? What conversation should our young people be having as they think about their jobs and their careers?

I mean, I found it through my church. That’s how I started plumbing. And that’s what we’ve talked about as we’re looking to hire: Do you hire experienced guys? Do we know what their background is? What are their moral ethics? It makes us lean toward finding kids from church and training them up.

Here’s my little sales pitch: You go through an apprenticeship. You get four years of training, during which you’re getting paid the whole time. You’re working full time, pretty much. Once you finish that, you do your test. Now, I believe it’s an 83% fail rate on your first try. They pull random stuff out of the code and they throw it at you; it’s a pretty tough test. But once you pass that, now you’re fully licensed. You have your Journeyman license. Now you have the job that you’ve had for the last four years. So there’s no, “I got my degree. And I don’t work in what I just studied for four years.” You go right back into what you’ve been doing for the last four years.

We used to watch guys on construction sites. I was fascinated by it, and I go sit there and watch them on the side of the road. And they’d go, “Ah, no, go to college! Don’t be like me!” And I’m like, “Well, who’s gonna build the buildings? Who’s gonna pave the road? We need that.”

I was reading newspaper articles five or ten years ago about the lack: When was the last time you saw some old electrician and old plumber walk in with a kid behind him, who’s learning? I don’t see it. It’s just an old guy. And they’re going to retire. We are going to have a shortage of plumbers, HVAC guys, electricians. There are some guys learning. But I was in the class for four years, and there were maybe 12 to 20 guys in the class at a time, two nights a week. Colleges are cranking out tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. And there’s only thousands of trades guys coming in to replace so many guys who are going to be retiring.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers as a final thought?
Get into a trade! If you’re not going to college, get into a trade. Give me a call!

For some people, college is the way to go. You need a degree for your job. But there are other options. I want to try to get into college fairs at high schools, set up a table and say, “Hey, there’s another option.”

Interview edited for clarity and length.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.

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1 thought on “Plumber on a Mission: Caleb Iler of Journeymen Plumbing”

  1. What a fantastic interview. I love Caleb’s comment at the end about setting up a booth at a high school College Fair!

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