You Could Help the World's Toughest Fixes

There's plenty of room at the top -- quite literally, according to Sean Riley, host of National Geographic's World's Toughest Fixes. Whether he's perched at the top of a 2,000-foot tower, swinging from the Tower Bridge in London or hanging from a wire on a Cirque du Soleil stage, Riley claims that rigging and mechanics involve some of the most fascinating and thrilling work on the planet, and that there's plenty of room for more skilled workers in those fields.

"There are a lot of missed and overlooked opportunities for workers in the trades right now," said Riley, who likes to go by his last name. "Around the '50s and '60s, college became fashionable as the only pathway to the American Dream," he said, and trade school enrollment began sliding. "The perception is that trade jobs are menial, but they're not -- many involve apprenticeships that last three to four years, which is the equivalent time it would take to get a college degree."

He notes that people will always need shelter and transportation, and those things will always need repairs. People might buy cars manufactured in other countries, but they'll need them repaired right here, as close to home as possible. "Skilled trade workers will always be in demand," he said. There was a time, he noted, when attorneys, CEOs and stockbrokers were considered the ultimate successes -- but there are an awful lot of them out of work right now, while well-trained tradesmen are in hot demand.

-- See the average salary of a welder, lineman and a window washing supervisor.

Fixing the world, one job at a time

Riley should know. He travels the world for his series, solving engineering and rigging problems wherever they pop up or break down. His third season of America's Toughest Fixes, which airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on the National Geographic Channel, will include scaling a 500-foot suspension bridge in the United Kingdom helping repair the amazing stage at Cirque du Soleil, as well as the world's largest video screen in Las Vegas; and in Philly, he'll roll up his sleeves to replace portions of the aging subway system. Near Niagara Falls, he'll rappel off an unstable cliff to help prevent a dangerous avalanche; and he'll overcome rugged back-country conditions to build a ski lift near Yellowstone National Park.

He does have a college degree -- in the field of technical theatrical design from the University of California at Santa Cruz -- but he credits his hands-on and apprentice-like experience with skilled experts as the qualifiers for the thrilling life he leads today -- not just hosting the World's Toughest Fixes, but playing an active and important role in them. There's great satisfaction in solving what seems like impossible problems, he says.

OK, a little help from Craigslist also helped him get where he is today. A friend he'd worked with spotted the ad that cast a very wide net, asking for someone who knew about things like welding, safety certification, physics, rigging, helicopter-aided construction and much more. "Coincidentally, I had quite a few of those skills, so I wrote them a flippant note, and no one was more surprised than I was when they called," he said.

Tough work, but someone's gotta do it

Hosting the show and playing an integral part in the fixes may be thrilling, but it's not easy. They filmed 320 days last year, and, since you can't orchestrate a breakdown or predict how long it will take to repair, Riley and his crew often found themselves jetting from one assignment to the next, without even having time to stop at home and repack for a different climate.

"Personal relationships with family and friends are a challenge," he admitted. "But I have a very understanding partner who is extremely busy herself, which helps out with the guilt factor."

Traveling all over the world for these fixes has provides him with invaluable insight into how the world is handling the global recession. "I see more and more workers leaving home, following the jobs and sending money back to their families," he noted. "I also see a worldwide empathy among the working class. A plumber in Scotland empathizes with a plumber in Georgia, and knows he's hurting. There's a multinational awareness of the problem."

And Riley hopes to inspire a multinational awareness of the importance of skilled trade workers. "If five kids decide they want to go into trades because of the show, I'll feel I've really accomplished something," he said. "The show and the work we do is exciting, often physically challenging, and provides a great adrenalin rush."

So if you're not cut out for the NBA or to be a race car driver, you might consider one of the trades covered in Riley's show: The thrill, the skill, and sometimes even the money, can often compete.

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