Upon graduating from Walkersville High School, Keith Abrecht considered pursuing a career in farming, a family pastime. That was until one of his four brothers offered a different trade path.
“I never really did good in school,” Keith said. “So coming out of school, I was just in need of a job.”
His brother, Ronald, asked for help at Kaempf & Harris in 1978, which jumpstarted Keith’s apprenticeship. The duo worked together for 37 years with the exception of Keith’s one-year hiatus as a military base guard.
After Ronald retired from being a project manager last year, Keith recalled the family work mentality, “He was hard on me, but I appreciate that though.”
Ronald’s tough-love approach helped Keith move from the floor to the office, despite his humble beginnings as a potential farmer.
“I prefer being [in the office],” he said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment, but I love building things, too, when I was on the floor.”
Even with his move upstairs, the Abrecht family continued its legacy at the local sheet metal shop. Keith’s cousin, Michael, took over floor responsibilities, while his son Brad shifted from design and spec duties to ductwork installation. Keith also works with his youngest brother, Thomas.
“There was four or five of us here at one point,” he laughed.
To round out the roster, his daughter Janet also worked at Kaempf & Harris. After retiring from being an Air Force medic due to complications with multiple sclerosis, she took a job as a receptionist. After a few years, she went back school at Southern Illinois and will graduate in 2017 with a degree in social work.
With a son who pursued a trade career and a daughter who academically excelled, Keith understands the polar opposite choices that are available to kids post-high school.
“I think more parents try to steer their kids toward that very, very expensive college,” he said. “But give [trade careers] a chance.”
He even sees the difference in generational opportunity with his grandchildren.
“My granddaughter...likes going to school,” he said. “She’s very smart. She’s in advanced algebra because the whole standard core wasn’t a challenge.”
However, her rigorous sports schedule doesn’t leave her with enough time to study. Though she still receives excellent marks like Janet, his granddaughter knows she could perform better. Her can-do classroom attitude means that she’ll most likely go to college because “it just fits.”
However, similar to Brad, Keith expects to see his grandson working at Kaempf & Harris soon.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see [Brad’s] son work in here,” he said. “He’s about 16 now. It depends on where the need is for us and if he likes working with his hands. To me, you need to experience it all.
“I think parents may view our trade as...you’re going to work hard for change, and that’s not really the case.”
Citing his own experience of moving from a laborer and sheet metal fabricator to his current position, Keith understands that hard work pays off. Most days consist of receiving drawings and specifications for mechanical companies’ projects, while some days mean going out for “pre-bids” and project reviews.
“If you give yourself a chance and work at this...it’s going to treat you well,” he said. “It depends on how far you want to take it. It’s not the old tin-banging job you heard of 40 years ago.”
Outside of being a part-time firefighter, “[sheet metal] is the one thing I love most,” and working with a supportive family -- in and out of the office -- undoubtedly makes Keith’s work days that much easier.