Nice work if you can get it: Six folks who took the path less traveled to fulfilling careers

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Brick mason Dennis Edwards’ work comes with a sense of history. “Opening up a wall that hasn’t seen daylight since maybe 1820—that’s something. You think about the last person to touch those bricks,” he said. Photo: John Robinson Brick mason Dennis Edwards’ work comes with a sense of history. “Opening up a wall that hasn’t seen daylight since maybe 1820—that’s something. You think about the last person to touch those bricks,” he said. Photo: John Robinson

When we asked you to weigh in on our jobs survey last month, you surprised us. In this era of lingering economic gloom, we figured a lot of you would report dismal job satisfaction, the result of being stuck in less-than-great positions simply for the security of a paycheck. But 72 percent of you said your job satisfaction was either good or great. And it wasn’t because the bulk of you are getting rich. Nearly 50 percent reported making $20,000-$50,000. So what are these jobs that deliver joy, if not fat stacks?

We found six Charlottesville and Albemarle residents who found their own answer. The most recent available data pegs Virginia’s mean salary at $46,000; these folks make within $10,000 of that mark, give or take. Their happiness quotient, though? It’s a lot higher than average.

Their careers could hardly be more diverse: A tradesman, a craftswoman, a writer, a cook, a backstage wrangler, and, yes, a horse masseuse. What they had in common, though, was the guts to turn passion into something that pays the bills.

Money can’t buy happiness, as the saying goes. But these locals found that a little ingenuity, doggedness, and devotion can go a long way toward a hell of a compromise.

Brick by brick
Touching history as a mason at UVA
Dennis Edwards’ first masonry job was really all about one thing: paying for a cool car. Understandable, considering he was 14.

“Most of my family was loggers,” said Edwards, who grew up in upstate New York. When high school summer break came, he was told he had to get a job. “My dad said, ‘You can go to work with my uncle in the woods, or this old mason.’”

He liked working with his hands, he said. He chose bricks. Now 46, he’s still in the same trade, one of a few masons skilled in historic restoration employed by UVA.

Restoration work is a highly competitive field, and in recent years, he had worked a few historic sites in Sarasota Springs, New York. But last winter, on a night when the temperature dipped to 25 below zero, he started Googling jobs in warmer climes.

Last June, he found himself in Charlottesville, the newest addition to a small team devoted to uncovering and preserving UVA’s architectural treasures, one brick at a time. Recently, they’ve been restoring a lot of fireplaces—something of a specialty for Edwards, and a project that often yields strange fruit.

Just weeks ago, they opened up one on the east range of the Academical Village that had been sealed in the 1940s, planning to pull out the base mortars and replace everything with fresh lime and a veneer of old brick pulled from a stockpile of originals UVA hoards. Inside, they found an old iron kettle hanger—clearly a relic from when the fireplace was much more than an attractive add-on. He’s come across other treasures, too: blown glass, ancient wallpaper. UVA meticulously documents all of them, but Edwards gets to hang on to the thrill of being first to the find.

“Opening up a wall that hasn’t seen daylight since maybe 1820—that’s something,” he said. “You think about the last person to touch those bricks. Some of the craftsmanship is unbelievable.”

It’s easy to feel connected to the masons of old, he said, because despite the modern luxury of electrified tools, much is the same now as it was then. “The main things, the trowel shapes, the hammers, the shapes of our tools—besides turning to steel from copper and brass, they’re pretty much the same.”

Even so, he encounters new things all the time. His new colleagues have worked on other World Heritage sites—a feather in the cap of any bricklayer—and they all swap knowledge. That’s part of what makes the job so enjoyable, said Edwards.

“When you get to a certain age, it’s real hard to keep learning when you’re in the same trade so long,” he said. “But this kind of job, you’re constantly learning something different.”

Unfortunately, masonry is a dying craft, he said. “Not a lot of younger kids want to do this type of work. It’s dirty. You have to have brain and brawn to do what we’re doing.”

There are a few out there, though. UVA has an apprenticeship program aimed at people in their 20s, and Edwards and other craftsmen are trying to pass on their knowledge.

Besides requiring a lot of skill and muscle, the job of a historic mason requires a tiring pace, he said—constant work, no rain days. But he wouldn’t switch places with anyone in a hurry. “I’ll stick with it until I can’t do it anymore,” he said.—Graelyn Brashear

Big players: Who has the largest local payroll?
The University of Virginia is the largest employer, with 14,622 employees. Martha Jefferson Hospital is the biggest private employer, with 1,741. State Farm is close behind, with 1,462. Other big bosses: Summit Realty, GE Intelligent Platforms, UVA Medical School, Northrop Grumman, LexisNexis, Aramark.

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