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Christ Among the Contractors
Image: Courtesy of Zach Smith

Christ Among the Contractors

How my work at a construction company reveals Jesus as much as my theology books once did.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times that I was a fresh college graduate with a historical theology degree applying for a job in electrical contracting. It was 2009, and I had spent the past four years studying the arc of theological truth through the centuries. The difference between discussions on Ludwig Feuerbach and circuit breakers seemed chasmic. I had no technical knowledge or trade experience, but I did have bills to pay. So when the company reached out to schedule an interview, I said yes.

I soon found out my potential new boss had not only received his master electrician license in his early 20s, but had taught as a professor after completing a seminary degree at Liberty University. He was also the kind of hardcore that rides his Harley in weather Army Rangers complain about. I feared he would find me an unqualified, poor fit for his company. Yet, in spite of my lack of trade knowledge, Phil Nelson hired me as an electrical estimator (or rather, the estimator, as I was the only one). Looking at blue prints and specifications, calculating costs and negotiating contracts wasn't exactly my dream job, but it covered my $280/month rent and helped me put a ring on my fiancée's finger.

It didn't take long for me to realize Nelson often intentionally hired people with little or no background in the trade. Just as often, he hired those who were unlikely to ever find steady, meaningful employment. Some of his employees carry a criminal past; some grapple with substance abuse. Most face the harsh reality of being born into an economically disadvantaged family in a shrinking rust belt city.

That's exactly what Binghamton, New York, is—a town familiar with abandoned warehouses, Family Dollar stores, and food stamps. The per-capita income in Binghamton in 2010 was about half the national average at $21,455. An estimated 28 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, including just over 40 percent of individuals under age 18. And for most of them, the expense of a trade school is hardly justifiable—an associate's degree in electrical construction at the State University of New York at Delhi costs about $9,198 per year, even with the financial aid provided for a student and a family contribution of $0.

Nelson isn't the first employer to hire unskilled employees and train them up in the trade. What differentiates Nelson's Lamp Lighters from many other construction companies is the investment Nelson makes in his employees and the work environment he creates. Where many companies hire seasonally, Lamp Lighters strives to maintain the same team of 30-40 field electricians year-round. As electricians learn more and progress within the trade, they get the chance to convert years of experience and on-the-job training into journeyman and master electrician trade licenses. In this way, Lamp Lighters provides value creation not only for each electrician, but for their families and, by extension, the broader community. In return, the company gets a loyal and dedicated employee who is invested in the company's success.

Some might criticize Nelson's hiring practices as inefficient and risky, while others might applaud him for keeping labor costs under control and training with the long view in mind. And there's truth to both sides. Hiring me as an untested estimator was risky—I drastically underbid my first project and lost the company thousands of dollars. (In the end, I've become a successful estimator in my own right.) But the motive for Nelson's practices runs much deeper. It is the simple character of a man committed to living his faith in the midst of the grit of mundane living. And where once that living might have been as a seminary professor, today it is in the context of electrical construction. Nelson's is not a radical calling or a particularly creative take on social enterprise. His work will rarely be recognized as missional. It won't be highlighted in ministry journals. And Lamp Lighters is anything but a front for charity work. Instead, it's a business enterprise that is intentionally social. It's about the people as much as the profit, a byproduct of an owner who is living as Christ lived, walking and working in a community for its common good.

But it's not just a social philosophy. These ideas permeate the entire company culture at Nelson's Lamp Lighters. Every Friday afternoon, Nelson orders pizza and soda. As everyone gathers to pick up paychecks, we share the frustrations and victories of the week—the best stories told and retold years later. Each summer the company hosts a summer picnic and annual Lamp Lighter Electrician Olympics as a chance to bring the families in the company together. Winter brings around the annual catered Christmas party where everyone shares the highlights of the year and Nelson presents company awards. And as a merit shop, Nelson is committed to giving back 20 percent of gross profits to the employees, in addition to the clothing and tool allowance programs workers are enrolled in when they are hired.

Through his company, Nelson has become a kind of philanthropic social venture capitalist. He has taken economically, civically, or otherwise socially stigmatized persons and credited their own social accounts with a sort of capital they could never have achieved on their own: trust, reputation, a sense of worth, dignity, and belonging. These are the very things Christ gave to tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen.

In one of the most economically depressed regions of New York, Nelson's Lamp Lighters gives its employees the basic tools to get started and a further opportunity to grow. And they do. Currently, all of the project managers were hired without previous experience and have come up through the ranks to take on senior leadership roles. The story is the same for about 50 percent of our on-site supervisors, and at least three-quarters of our apprentices and helpers.

It's also my story. Several years after starting out with zero trade experience, I now maintain a backlog of work large enough to keep 30-40 electricians employed, overseeing the annual purchase of millions of dollars worth of materials, assisting with the executive side of project management, and occasionally getting to talk theology with Nelson. And yet, perhaps the greatest thing Nelson has given me is a picture of an embodied Christ—a tradesman crafting a work environment where integrity, human dignity, and empowerment are simply part of the daily grind. On the outside, Lamp Lighters might look like just another construction company where individuals with low-income backgrounds and limited futures cycle in and out. But I know it as much more than that—a catalyst for growth not only for Nelson's employees, but their families, the wider community, and the rust belt beside.

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    Pop Seal

    August 11, 2013  8:39pm

    I was ordained before I went to my first pastorate about four years after finishing college and seminary. At 68 and retired from full time ministry, I now look back and believe I was most useful for Christ when outside the office of a minister. "Inside" was too confining for me. Give me a Christian on the streets, before one from "inside".

    Jay Brennan

    August 10, 2013  8:30am

    Thanks so much for this amazing graceful true story.

    Jim Ricker

    August 09, 2013  4:41pm

    Zach, thank you for sharing this story with us. As someone who went back to school, earned his theological degree at 40 and finds himself not in the position he thought he was called, this article is a wonderful reminder of what it truly means to be like Jesus.

    R V

    August 09, 2013  12:40pm

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing.

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