Handyman Finds 'Pot Of Gold' In RV Maintenance

Mitchell Graska didn't start his working life wanting be a recreational vehicle technician. In fact, he likely didn't even know that the profession existed when he left Indiana nearly 30 years ago to become a pipeline welder in Texas.

By the time Graska arrived in Houston in 1983, however, the oil boom of the late 1970s and early '80s was going bust, and there weren't many pipeline welding jobs to be found. So he began working odd jobs in construction, adding to a lifetime of work in many skilled trades.

"I've done everything by now," he says.

Graska, 50, discovered the field of maintaining and repairing recreational vehicles after his then-soon-to-be father-in-law, Felton Machost, who owned an RV repair business, offered him a job. Graska took over the reins of Felton's RV Service in 1985, and continued to work as a repair technician.

Graska said that he immediately spotted the viability of the business. RVs are complex vehicles that essentially combine the amenities of homes with the portability of cars. Components like plumbing and electricity, for example, make them more like homes, while others, such as the engine and transmission, make them more like cars.

"What I really like about it is it's so interesting. I'm never doing the same thing every day," says the divorced father of three. "It keeps my attention."

Graska got most of his technical training on the job and by using service manuals, which were mainly provided by RV suppliers, Graska recently told RV Executive Today Online.

"When I first started working on RVs, there were no structured courses to learn the trade."

The craft has to be learned one component at time, Graska tells AOL Jobs, noting that he learned to repair the most difficult components first, starting with generators. "It helped me learn the rest of the business a lot quicker," he says. "Once you learn the hardest component of the RV, then the rest of it is easier to learn."

It wasn't always an easy arrangement between Graska and Machost. After working for his father-in-law for 10 years, they had a disagreement, so Graska left and found another job in the industry.

"I applied for three jobs and got all three," he says, adding that he eventually accepted a position as a service manager at a local RV dealership.

Two years later, he began teaching at Houston Community College in the RV technician training program. Because the college requires its instructors to have at least a two-year degree, Graska went back to school and finished his associate degree, at age 36, in RV technology.

After two years of teaching, Graska returned to Felton's, he says, because Machost was getting older and Graska wanted to help out.

Today, despite the unsteady economy, Felton more than holds its own, Graska says. Since the business focuses on service not sales, Graska doesn't have the overhead costs associated with maintaining inventory or a fancy showroom.

Even so, sales of RVs have held fairly steady in recent years, despite the recession. U.S. sales this year are expected to rise 2.1 percent from 2010's sales, to about 247,500 units, says the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

But sliding consumer confidence and a clouded economic outlook are expected to reduce RV sales next year by 2 percent, to 242,400 units, according to forecasts that the Reston, Va.-based trade group released in August.

Graska's business also benefits from commercial work. He and his technicians -- Graska employs two -- provide maintenance for several local TV stations and hospitals that use RVs as mobile workstations. There also was plenty of work after Tropical Storm Alison in 2001 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, which included servicing the Salvation Army's canteen trucks and Federal Emergency Management Agency's mobile command units.

"The commercial side of this RV world is just as important as the [consumer side]," he says. "The big money is still out there."

RV technicians earn a mean wage of $16.78 an hour, or $34,900 a year, according to May 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most recent available. Texas, California, Florida, Washington and Indiana are the states that employ the largest numbers of RV technicians, the BLS says.

Graska says demand for RV technicians is strong, noting that he believes the market in Houston alone right now could use another 50 of them.

"Every dealership in town would like a quality technician," he says. "I need two of them myself."


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