Bob Masser began working at Kaempf & Harris when times were simpler.
A McDonald’s cheeseburger was 19 cents, and no television set was in his childhood home. Tablets and cell phones were as futuristic as hover cars. He opted to play outside and occasionally daydreamed of a career in the military because “there wasn’t all the opportunity…that there is now.”
However, Masser took a different approach to his future after Jim Harris of Kaempf & Harris spoke with a vocational teacher at Frederick High School during Masser’s junior year. Harris asked if anybody was interested in a summer job, and the teacher recommended his student.
After high school graduation in 1956, Masser went back to his summer job and made a 60-year career of it.
A Sheet Metal Start-Up
“Back in the day, when I started,” he said. “We had 2 people in sheet metal, then progressed from there.”
The company first began as a small plumbing business but quickly recognized the need for residential warm-air heat service as Frederick began growing from a “one-horse town” to a bustling epicenter of economic opportunity.
This decision prompted a need for air ductwork – an endeavor Kaempf & Harris took on in-shop. When the local business realized that sheet metal had decreased competition, they dropped plumbing and heating to commit to the craft.
“I started there just cutting sheet metal the old-time way – by hand,” Masser said.
The company specialized in small-scale projects like ductwork and custom metal design. Masser worked his way up to project manager and helped a multitude of clients, including BioWhittaker, Inc. (now Lonza Group) in Walkersville and BP Solar.
Throughout his career, he created specialty stainless steel chutes and cooling enclosures for Thomas English Muffins. Masser helped bring NVR, Inc.’s visions of a steel outdoor air conditioner unit support system and lifeline brackets to life. He also worked on the duct systems in Monocacy Middle and Waverly Elementary schools.
“As Frederick grew, we did a lot more local custom work,” he said.
And it wasn’t an easy feat.
“They tried to tell you what they wanted to do,” Masser explained. “And you had to figure out how to do it. They handed you no blueprints, maybe a couple of notes and sketches.”
From there, Masser and his growing team would take on the project with knowledge from their hands-on experience, not classroom training.
“You don’t need 4 years in a book to learn how to do certain vocational trades,” he said. “That got lost along the way, but maybe it’s coming back more as more people find out that you can’t go to college and find $100,000 job as soon as they graduate.”
Masser never went to college. He instead dedicated every day (with a 6-month exception for active duty military in the U.S. Army Reserve) to sheet metal fabrication.
Computers, Paperwork, and Electronics: Oh my.
Masser watched Kaempf & Harris grow from a 2-man shop to a 60-plus-man shop. The company shifted focus from small, specialty work to large-scale projects (though the former is still an offered service), and it now relies on computerization for much of the preliminary work.
“It used to be more of a hands-on thing,” Masser said. “In my opinion, there are still some things not so bad about being hands-on.”
However, the former Kaempf & Harris employee understood the positive affect that automation had on the sheet metal trade.
“It’s helped our line of work,” he admitted. “Everybody sits behind those computers and does all this stuff, and it’s magical. It’s fast, and it’s quick.
“Today, guys are banging [metal] together after the computer tells them what to do, cuts it for them, and gets it ready for [assembly].”
Though computers were good for the business’ increased demand, Masser didn’t see the benefit of learning the new technological skill after 60 years on the job.
“I know there is training in computerization for older people and so forth,” he explained. “I was just busy enough that I felt I didn’t need to at my age.”
After that, Masser decided it was time to retire.
Saying Goodbye to Sheet Metal
After being on the fab shop floor for 6 decades, the former Kaempf & Harris employee watched the rise of automatic processes take over hands-on learning. He noticed more contracts, zoning paperwork, and construction documents.
However, Masser had only kind words to say about the industry and his only workplace.
“[Kaempf & Harris] was comfortable for me,” he said. “I knew people down the road were making more, and that’s where all the trades were going back in the day – down the road. I just never thought about going down the road…and I feel so fortunate that I never had to do it.”
He hopes for the best for Kaempf & Harris, as he believes “[the market's] competitive and changing, and I think they can keep up with that. They’ve been doing it, and they have enough experience to keep doing it.”
Today, Masser still advocates for trade careers, but his time is mainly spent outside of the fab shop. In his retirement, Masser takes care of a 2-acre lot of land and enjoys being outdoors. He also visits his grandkids in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.