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Entrepreneur Justin Sullivan Talks ‘Soul’ of Skilled Trades

By Arnesa A. Howell

Talk to any newly minted electrical graduate of the D.C. Apprenticeship Academy, and it’s clear the day is a big deal. Still, it’s the “tiny details” that will prove to be key to their future successes, according to Justin Sullivan, president and owner of green construction-focused Impact Remodeling and Construction in Washington, D.C.

“Everything you guys do is about little, tiny details,” said Sullivan, the graduation ceremony’s keynote speaker, whose insight is gleaned from experience.

Sullivan has worked in the trades for more than 20 years, and in that time, he’s learned valuable lessons that he freely shared. This is an industry, he said, that takes hard work. But it is also a “rewarding, natural place to grow your careers and grow yourselves,” he added.

“You can put on a suit and manage a lot of people, but you’re never going to get the sense of soul and spirit [you get] from working on the job site,” he told grads.

Sullivan was only 13 years old when he started his own journey into the skilled trades, drilling nail holes and caulking as a painter’s helper for his dad. By the age of 18, he had transitioned from one day a week to five days a week during the summer. Post-college life exposed him to multiple professional opportunities, including working for a law firm. But the childhood experience of working among carpenters, painters and others in the skilled trades opened the door to a different set of opportunities that helped him “forge his own path.”

The pull to the trades persisted. And eventually, Sullivan said he started what is now a leading home improvement construction firm in the District.

Looking out at the students in the audience, Sullivan cautioned that those within this city may not have the level of appreciation for skilled trades that is warranted. The assertion drew affirmative nods and rumblings in agreement. “Don’t expect people to appreciate what you guys do. As you’ll learn as you move along in your careers, you’ve got to get that appreciation from yourselves, those you work with every day and your family,” he advised. “Show your kids some day the projects that you’ve worked on.”

Because they had learned a valuable skill set, Sullivan also urged graduates to appreciate their worth. Plus, he encouraged them to be open to evolving toward opportunities like starting a business, and to have fun with their chosen careers—enjoy not having to sit in an office all day long, he said.

Ultimately, Sullivan praised the electrical graduates for remaining steadfast. “A lot of your decisions to get where you are now say a lot about your character,” he said. “It tells me you’re a group that follows your own path. It tells me you are risk takers.”