5 Industry Success Stories That Inspire

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As five success stories unfold in five hot industries, they seem completely different. Construction and children's books? Medicine, radio, and design? But take a closer look and you'll see these career paths have a lot in common. These folks had passion, seized opportunities, and worked from the bottom up – some without relying on a four-year degree.


A Construction Career Built From the Ground Up

Gregory Hescock is a Vice President at Boston-based Suffolk Construction, one of the country's most successful general contractors. He summed up his 22-year career with the company: "I've gone from being an Assistant Superintendent to a Vice President, running the entire field operations of a billion-and-a-half-dollar company without any formal construction education."

In 1987, Hescock was Director of Buildings and Grounds at The Rivers School, a private preparatory school in Weston, Massachusetts. To cut costs on construction of a new building on campus, the school approached him to take on the role general contractor, avoiding the need to hire one. Hescock admits, "I'd never done anything like that." Though surprised by the offer, he recognized it as "a tremendous opportunity" and accepted.

Hescock explains, "I finished the project on time. The school was very happy and gave me a bonus." But there was a problem. He says, "They wanted me to go back to my old job."

He talked with a trustee of the school, with whom he'd worked during construction, about his desire to pursue construction. Through this connection, Hescock landed interviews with several general contractors and was soon hired by Suffolk.

"My first project was a six-building apartment complex. I was on the job ten weeks when they fired the superintendent." Due to the strife caused by the superintendent's negative work style, "There was a revolt on the site." Hescock was asked to be the new project leader.

The role of superintendent was a perfect fit. On that first job site, he realized, "I loved the job. I loved building." To this day, Hescock enjoys seeing the physical results of his work. He says, "Everyday the project changes. Your progress is tangible."

In Hescock's experience, construction is full of opportunities-if you're prepared to sacrifice. He says, "You have to be willing to put in hours, to work weekends. There were times when I worked six weeks straight."

Hescock's best advice for succeeding in construction has to do with people-not steel or concrete. "Take the approach that the people you work with are competent and doing their best. Give them respect. If you talk down to them, it sets the stage for failure. People can sense that."

Construction superintendent, commercial, over 20 years of experience, median annual salary: $85,385


Dedicated DJ Rises in Radio

With more than 20 years in radio, Bill DeVille has paid his dues in an elusive industry. He's now host of "Musicheads" on Minneapolis Public Radio's The Current (thecurrent.org).

After a nine-month program at Brown College's Broadcasting Program, DeVille sent out 150 resumes to radio stations-not realizing that he knew one of the station's program directors, a former neighbor who would help him land his first job. DeVille explained, "In radio, it's not what you know it's who you know."

"I started out at a country station in my hometown-Sioux Falls, Dakota." He worked four hours on Sundays. "I had no interest in it but wanted to start my career and knew I had start from the very bottom."

Over the next decade, DeVille's career ramped up, but it was a newspaper article that helped him realize how far he'd come. "Back in 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a feature story on my radio show, with a full picture on the front page. People had sent in letters about my show. That's when I realized, 'I must be doing something right.'"

While hosting "Musicheads" is fun, it's not easy. He says, "It's a challenge because I have to listen to tons and tons of music." But to him, those hours spent sifting through music are absolutely worth it. "I'm doing a live radio show in the Twin Cities. I love it."

DeVille's main tip for those just starting out? Don't do what he did, when it comes to education. "I recommend getting a four-year degree and doing college radio." That's not the only route, however. "Or volunteer at public radio station. With all the internet opportunities, it's not as far fetched as it seems."

Radio show, host, over 20 years of experience, median annual salary: $56,540


Love Leads the Way from Bartending to Children's Books

Before inspiration struck for her popular children's book, "I Love You More," Laura Duksta tended bar and managed a busy nightclub in South Beach, Florida, often wondering, "What am I going to do with my life?"

After a phone call with her sister, whose young family was going through a tough time, Duksta started to pray for them-especially her nephew. That's when the idea came to her for writing a book for her nephew called "I Love You More." "Ideas flooded my mind and my heart." She began writing.

While inspiration came easily, logistics did not. "I had no idea how to make it happen," she recalled. She enlisted the help of an illustrator friend, and sent the book to publishers, only to receive "a handful of no's." Later she'd learn that publishers prefer to choose the illustrator.

Encouragement from a friend who was also, conveniently, an expert in self-publishing, led her to take matters into her own hands. He said, "You've got all this passion-you need go for it!"

Now in the process of transitioning from self-publisher to published author, Duksta is proud to have penned one of the best selling self-published books ever. "I Love You More" has won numerous awards and is in the publishing hall of fame.

As a self-published author, Laura's biggest challenge was gaining retail accounts, by picking up the phone or heading out on the road to personally sell the book to stores. As a published author, she has more support, but less control over the process, including when her next book will hit shelves-it's currently slated for fall of 2010.

In addition to writing and promoting her own books, Duksta teaches aspiring children's book authors the secrets to her success in her "Children's Book Academy" (lauraduksta.com/academy).

The best part of Duksta's day is hearing from her readers. "I Love You More" is read at weddings and funerals, and given as a birthday gift to people of all ages. She says, "I feel so blessed that this is my life and this is what I get to do."

Not surprisingly, her advice for breaking into the industry is to write from the heart. "I believe that if it's a true expression of who you are or a really inspiring idea, that is going to catapult to success. People write books all the time, but if I didn't have the passion for the message, it could've been just another book. I believe it's going to be a classic."

Writer or author, 5-8 years experience, median annual salary: $51,251


A Futuristic Career by Design

Richard Zaragoza's first design job was worlds away from his current office at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Fourteen years ago in Rancho Cucamonga, California, he was doing holiday window paintings on store windows for $70. It was humble work, but meaningful. "That [experience] gave me the confidence to get a certificate in computer graphic design."

Today, Richard Zaragoza gets paid very well for "user experience design for software incubation." He's risen to the top despite having only attended trade school for one year. He explains, "I work with PhD's, so it can be awkward... I don't have any education listed on my Facebook page-it's blank."

After trade school, he designed packaging for a packing factory. He never actually received a paycheck. "I took risks. I saw it as an opportunity to learn." The design work he did there, including boxes for liquor bottles and a clothing iron, formed the foundation of a portfolio that would lead to better and better jobs.

According to Zaragoza, the best part of his job is "creating something out of nothing." On the other hand, he relishes the challenges of his role. "You can't just hand over a design and expect buy-off. You've got to make a believer of each team member individually while still remaining flexible to their additions or subtractions."

The first step toward a successful design career, Zaragoza believes, is to understand the range of options in the field. Four years ago, he didn't know that his current job even existed. As for the next step, he advises, "Find experts in the field you want to be in, and befriend them. I work with geniuses. I completely latch onto them and suck up any information they give me."

Final thoughts? "Foolish confidence is healthy. Also, failure is not the end of the road-it's just the next step to success. Don't be afraid to screw up."

Senior graphic designer, 8-13 years experience, median annual salary: $56,832


Physician Assistant Takes Charge of His Career

"I'm really nobody's assistant," says Kris Johnson, a physician assistant in the emergency room at Valley Hospital and Medical Center in Spokane Valley, Washington. Johnson examines patients' histories, prescribes medications, and develops treatment plans. He points out, "My role is not too different from the physicians that I work side by side with."

While his salary is lower than that of an M.D., mainly due to less schooling, there are comparative advantages. "My hours are all over the place, but I don't have to be on call. I don't have anyone calling me at home from work."

In 2001, when Johnson was laid off from a machine shop just after the September 11th attacks, a government program paid for nine months of school. Johnson chose to become a surgical technologist.

Within six months in the medical field, the role of physician assistant caught his eye. "I enjoyed medicine but hadn't thought it was something I could ever do. Medical school was out of reach."

He spent a year fulfilling academic requirements to apply to PA school and was accepted into a local program. Because he was employed as a surgical technologist in the school's hospital he attended night school for free while working fulltime.

He excelled in his studies. "It was the first time that I was in school and felt like it was something I could really do and looked forward to doing."

Johnson's advice for those pondering the physician assistant path? "If you have any desire to work in medicine, start in an ancillary position. Physician assistant programs require prior medical experience."

Johnson points out that after seeing the "not so glamorous aspects" of the field, you'll know whether it's right for you. For him, those early experiences were confirmation of his calling.

Physician assistant, 5-8 years experience, median annual salary: $88,214


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Source: All salary data is from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median, annual salaries for full-time workers with varied years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit sharing.

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