Our education and job system is broken.
We force everyone into college to major in any random course of study and graduate after 4 years.
But some of these degrees don’t have a job market out there for them after college. So they end up behind the counter, as Starbucks baristas. Simply making ends meet.
But there’s good news.
There’s a good career path you can take without wasting 4 years in college.
In fact, there’s a huge gap for these kinds of people. Tons of business owners are asking for people who followed this path.
So what is this career path?
In today’s episode, Todd Fleming, a CPS Energy veteran retired at 55 years old, shares why learning a trade is a great career path. You’ll also discover the massive freedom and monetary benefits that come with working as a skilled worker.
Show highlights include:
- Why a trade program is more important than your college degree ([6:04])
- How Todd went from making minimum wage as a laborer to retiring at 55 without jumping from job to job (and how you can too) ([8:37])
- Why learning a trade can unlock millions of dollars in retirement funds. ([13:44])
- The right things to consider before retiring (so you don’t drown in debt) ([12:15])
- A simple career blueprint you can follow if you want to be in a trade and retire before you hit 60. ([19:49])
Do you want a wealthy retirement without worrying about money? Welcome to “Retire in Texas”, where you will discover how to enjoy your faith, your family, and your freedom in the State of Texas—and, now, here’s your host, financial advisor, author, and all-around good Texan, Darryl Lyons.
Darryl: Hey, this is Darryl Lyons, CEO and co-founder of PAX Financial Group, and you’re listening to Retire in Texas. Appreciate you tuning in. I always have to give you the disclosure that this information is general in nature only. It’s not intended to provide specific tax or legal advice. Visit PAXFinancialGroup.com for more information, and I want to remind you to visit PAX Financial Group, but if you wanted to connect with an advisor, all you have to do is put in “TEXAS” to the number 74868. That’s “TEXAS” to 74868. [01:00].3]
Today, I’m excited to talk about somebody who retired from CPS, Todd Fleming. Todd, thanks for coming in.
Todd: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
Darryl: Yeah, appreciate it. This is going to be fun because the municipal space has some interesting career paths, and so I have some curiosity questions. But before I jump into kind of the career path, are you originally from Texas?
Todd: I am.
Todd: Grew up in San Antonio. I was born in Dallas, but grew up in San Antonio.
Darryl: Okay, what high school did you go to?
Todd: James Madison.
Darryl: Madison High School. After high school, did you jump into the CPS world right away or …?
Todd: No, after high school, I had an uncle that was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he was in the newspaper business and had a big printing plant and I went up there and worked for him for a while, still trying to find my path.
Todd: And I decided. Oklahoma was a great state, but wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I came back and was fortunate enough to get on with an electrical contractor here in San Antonio, and from that, I happened to work with a gentleman whose father was a supervisor of CPS Energy, and he got me an interview, and so I transitioned over to CPS. I was still only 20 years old at the time. [02:07].4]
Darryl: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering, and the reason I was going there, CPS, for those that are out of San Antonio, is a city public service. But where I was going with that was that you were relatively young, and so a lot of people who I’ve known over the years have been with CPS and they’ve stayed with them for a long time.
I’m going to get into that, but I’m going to rewind the clock a little bit, understanding a little bit more about where you came from. Growing up in San Antonio, middle class, lower class, poor, rich, what did it look like for your family? Parents around?
Todd: Yeah, my parents were divorced when I was fairly young. I think I was about 8. Lived with my mother primarily. I would say, probably middle class at the time.
Todd: Grew up over actually off Walzem Road behind Roosevelt High School over in that area. She was a nurse. We didn’t have an abundance, but we had a good network. My grandparents lived in Windcrest area. They were close and – [03:01].6]
Darryl: That was where rich people lived.
Todd: – helped support us. Back then it was.
Darryl: Back then.
Todd: Yeah. And my dad was certainly in the picture, but he … I just didn’t live with him, but we had pretty regular visitations.
Darryl: That’s good. And brothers and sisters?
Todd: I had a brother and sister growing up. I was the oldest. My sister was the second. Unfortunately, she passed when she was 14 years old.
Darryl: Oh, I’m sorry.
Todd: She just turned 14, yeah. But my brother, yeah, with him. Then later in life, my mother remarried and I have a half-brother, and my father remarried and on that side was a stepsister that I’m pretty close with, too.
Darryl: That’s a bunch of cousins, nieces and nephews.
Todd: Not a whole lot on that aspect. I’ve got two nieces from my brother and I’ve got two nephews from my stepsister sister.
Darryl: How did the loss of your sister impact you?
Todd: Tremendous because we were only 18 months apart in age.
Darryl: Oh, wow.
Todd: Yeah, she died of a cancer.
Darryl: Oh, no.
Todd: So, yeah, it was a pretty traumatic experience.
Darryl: I can only imagine, and you were how old at the time? [04:01].2]
Todd: I was 15.
Darryl: Fifteen, yeah, I was going to say, right. That’s devastating. So, when you were growing up, and I know the neighborhood that you’re talking about, it’s middle class. It’s not a trailer park or anything like that, but it’s not Windcrest, it’s not Dominion. It’s not Alamo Heights. When you graduated, were you good with your hands? You go into electrical engineering. Were there some things that you were doing in high school, fiddling with stuff, that led you into kind of being in electrical engineering?
Todd: There was. Madison wasn’t a school I was supposed to go to. Roosevelt would have been the school that would have attended, but there was an ag department at Madison FFA.
Todd: And they had a kind of an ag transfer type program. I think now they call them magnet schools or something where they draw people in.
Darryl: Yeah, yeah.
Todd: But I was able to get into that program, so I came up through the agriculture, showing pigs and stuff, and having to do a lot of mechanical type stuff, assembling feeders and working on pens, and stuff like that. [05:03].5]
Todd: And, also, there were some electives, took some welding and stuff like that, so, yeah, it made me mechanical strong.
Darryl: Yeah, you did some welding, huh?
Darryl: Yeah, I mean, assembling deer blind, all that stuff. Obviously, I just get the blind. I mean, your blind, if anybody’s listening out there, you can get a blind off the shelf that’s like you could live in this thing.
Todd: Oh, yeah.
Darryl: But at the time that you’re talking about, I mean, we’re talking kind of feeders and blinds made the old school kind of way of doing it.
Darryl: But you would weld those things together?
Todd; Oh, yes. Yeah.
Darryl: Yeah, and then, of course, the mechanics of spinning out some of the feed, you’d kind of a mechanic. You’d be able to put those things together with the springs and all that.
Todd: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, the electrical connections and setting timers, and all that stuff.
Darryl: Why are my timers always off? I don’t get that. I set it and then I go back in there 30 minutes, an hour off, not because of the time change. It’s like, what the heck happened?
Todd: No, it’s hard to say those things. They’re electromechanical, so they’ve got a little error in them. [06:03].1]
Darryl: Yeah, I figured that. The reason I’m kind of going here a little bit more is because I’m curious to know about a problem that exists in the country and the State of Texas. I was recently up in Austin, this week, actually, I met with the governor. I met with legislators, and the consistent issue that I’ve heard over the last 10 years is that there’s not a pathway for those that are in a trade, and what we do is we kind of forced everyone into a college tradition, the four year degree program where people come out with maybe a major in philosophy or whatever, where in 9th or 10th grade, they should have learned to trade. And even though we’ve made progress in that space, there’s still a huge gap, and so what we’re seeing is a ton of business owners out there that are saying, “I need skilled labor. I need people who can critically think, solve problems, and have a trade.” What would you say to that? [07:00].2]
Todd: I think that’s absolutely right. There’s so many kids today that are getting degrees that there’s not a really good field of work for them to go into. I mean, there’s a lot of people say a lot of Starbucks.
Todd: All the baristas have college degrees, but they just can’t find a job in their field of work, so I think a trade is definitely a great path. And a lot of schools nowadays actually have some trade programs that will steer kids into construction trades or plumbing, electrical, A/C, and stuff like that, and there’s always going to be a need for trades out there.
Darryl: A hundred percent. You kind of ebb and flow where the changes in technology take place, but if you’re in the weeds, you’ll find your way to where, if the equipment changes, you’ll learn the new equipment. I know when I was in Medina Valley, it’s where I went to school and I learned auto mechanics. I always thought that would be a great career, because even though, obviously, automobiles have changed, if you’re in that space and you’re just constantly being curious, you’ll grow with the technology.
So, you were 20 years at CPS or how many years? [08:01].3]
Todd: No, I retired just shy of 35.
Darryl: Okay, so how old are you right now? That would make you 55?
Todd: I’m 55, right, yes.
Darryl: So, think about that. The reason I’m kind of leading up to this, if people are picking up what I’m dropping, retired at 55. I know a lot of doctors, attorneys, a lot of people out there that would love to retire at 55, and I know it’s a grind and I know it’s a tough career, but you learned a trade and then you became valuable at CPS. Now, what I’d like to get at is tell me how your career at CPS started and then how it kind of evolved over those 35 years.
Todd: My career CPS, I was doing electrical work for a contractor prior, so I had a little bit of electrical background, but when I got hired in, I got hired in as a laborer on the heavy hauler group. I mean, you’re making barely over minimum wage, it wasn’t a whole lot, but it was a stepping stone. I got into there. [08:53].1]
CPS, back then they had job postings, paper slips. They were white, typically, but if they had a pink slip, that means that you could apply even if you weren’t through with your probationary period. They had a call for electrician trainees and I think they were hiring for 14 positions at the time, so I applied and was hired as an electrician trainee. That’s kind of how that route went off into the electrical trade.
Darryl: That’s cool. I mean, just the little decisions you made and kind of guiding you, and, man, then you turned out and that became a career. Did you stay in that area of CPS or how did it change?
Todd: I was an electrician trainee for a little over six years. As a trainee, we rotate through some different shops and you’re learning different not trades necessarily, but different disciplines of CPS Energy, transformer shop, the test shop, system-protection shop, different stuff like that.
I was kind of fine at the testing shop. They do all the high-voltage testing of substation equipment, transformers, breakers, what have you, and so I was just kind of fine at that, so after about six years of being a trainee, that position became open and I applied and was fortunate enough to land that position. [10:06].1]
Darryl: I’ve got to ask you, have you ever been shocked?
Todd: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah.
Darryl: And so, tell me, give me at least one story here.
Todd: And if he’s ever listening to this, he’s going to tell a different version. A fellow tester and I, we were out on the job. He was testing bushings on a circuit breaker. These are high-voltage bushings. He was testing at 2,500 volts, so 2.5 kV. He was getting some bad reads. He asked me to check the connection. So, I go to check the connection, made an assumption that he had turned his machine off. He didn’t, so when I touched it, it hit me and it hit me hard. Luckily, my arm was touching the metal frame, because the electricity went in my thumb and blew out through my arm, so I’ve got two small permanent holes in my arm.
Darryl: No kidding.
Darryl: So, had you not been touching that electrical frame?
Todd: If I would have been touching with the other side of my body, and it possibly could have gone through my heart, it could have been bad. [11:02].4]
Darryl: Oh my gosh, wow. And so, his side of the story was …?
Todd: Was that he didn’t tell me to touch it. He just said, “Go see what’s going on.”
Darryl: Yeah, okay. When that happened, obviously, it shocked you, for lack of a better word, but all pun intended, I guess. What did you do? Did it just hit you and then you just paused or did you go see the doctor?
Todd: No, I didn’t. It didn’t require any medical attention or anything. At the time, it probably went to safety culture there. Now, yes, they would advise you to do that. But, no, at the time, it just kind of threw my arm back and it shakes you up for a minute.
Darryl: Oh, man.
Todd: Then you go.
Darryl: I mean, as a kid, you touch electrical fences <unclear [11:41].5>. Just that alone, and only the voltage is low compared to that, I’d be freaking out. Did you stay in that lane the whole 35 years or did you move into management? I mean, you were kind of in a management role early to a certain degree, right?
Todd: Yeah, I was responsible. I had a trainee working with me, so I was over that.
Darryl: That’s what I was thinking, yeah. [12:01].1]
Todd: But, yeah, so I was a tester for a while, and then I moved into a supervisory role, and then I wound up being the manager of the whole department.
Darryl: Yeah. How long were you in management?
Todd: From when I became a supervisor, probably a little over 10 years.
Darryl: Yep, okay. Then there comes a point in time where you look at your wife and you say, “Okay, I think it’s time that I moved on to the next chapter. What triggered that for you to consider retiring?
Todd: Fifty-five is kind of a benchmark, 55 and 35 at CPS where a lot of people feel like that’s kind of the time to get out and net, so I was approaching that age. We were prepared financially. We were comfortable, and so that’s something you think about planning for years ahead and we’d gotten to that point. We met with our financial advisor. He ran the numbers on us and he said, “You’re good to go,” and so that’s what helped us with the decision. Now, being retired from CPS doesn’t mean I’m retired from doing anything.
Darryl: That’s exactly how I’m going to get to. I want to hear more about that. Was getting debt resolved a part of your plan, reducing your debt? [13:01].1]
Todd: Yes, early on, I had a plan and I had it mapped out when I wanted my house paid for, and I wanted to retire comfortably without any lingering debt. It’s going to hold me back.
Darryl: There wasn’t anything that triggered it in terms of, let me say this, the 35 number that you talked about, or 55, that has something to do with your pension. So, to be able to optimize the numbers for a pension, and for those that are listening, a lot of municipalities offer pensions. As you alluded to, you might not get the best wage initially. You’ll get a fair wage, but the real kicker, and I know it takes a while for it to manifest, is that pension? So, you’ll get a pension. Correct me if I’m wrong, because I just haven’t worked with CPS in a while since I’m not necessarily an advisor like I used to be, but you’ll get a pension for the rest of your life. Right?
Todd: Absolutely. [13:54].2]
Darryl: And so, that’s 40, 45 years of getting a paycheck from a company. It’s worth we run present-value calculations on that number. I mean, it can be worth at least a million if not two, if not more, and so it’s a really sweet gig. I say all that because those who are listening that consider adopting a trade in their life, moving into a municipal role that provides a pension, you’re the benefactor of that and it’s huge. But there wasn’t a triggering event at CPS or elsewhere that you said, “Okay, it’s time for me to retire.” It was an orchestrated plan based on the numbers, right?
Darryl: Okay, because some people are like, Oh, I had a heart attack and I realized the stress was getting me. Other people say, “I just wasn’t happy anymore.” But, for you, it’s just a calculated, cerebral, “The numbers work. It’s time to transition.” Correct?
Todd: Yeah, correct, absolutely.
Darryl: I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
Darryl: Okay, and so now, what I like to say, you didn’t retire, because “retire”, by definition, is the disposition of an asset over its useful life, but you’re pivoting into the next chapter. What does that next chapter look like for you?
Todd: It has the most civic-end work. I’m very involved with the San Antonio Rodeo. I’m a chairman on the committee down there, so that’s consuming my February. [15:05].8]
Darryl: Oh, wow.
Todd: And it’s a year-round commitment, so I’m going to do that. I really enjoy that. The mission of the San Antonio rodeo is to help us in agriculture –
Darryl: Love it.
Todd: – and so that’s very rewarding. Yeah, we contribute a lot to that, helped them with their mission. I do have an opportunity to go back and do some contract work from my field in the electrical field. I’m going to do some of that for a while. Then I’ve got some interest. I’ve got some ranching interests. My son has a business, I help him as well.
Darryl: You don’t have to jump in anything.
Todd: No, I don’t have to.
Darryl: What a great position to be. Man, congratulations.
Todd: Thank you.
Darryl: I want to go into a couple of other things, because you don’t have to rush anything. You still have time. You still have youth. I know your back doesn’t feel that way, but you still have youth. But the rodeo, how did you get involved with the rodeo? And for those that are listening outside Texas, the San Antonio rodeo is very legit. I mean, it’s got to be one of the top two or three in the nation. I know Houston’s huge, but where does it rank relative to the other ones? [16:00].0]
Todd: It’s right up there to talk consistently.
Darryl: It’s amazing and I love going, love taking my family every year. Tell me how you got involved with the rodeo.
Todd: I’ve always been in agriculture. I’ve mentioned earlier when I was in high school, I started showing animals, so I’ve been involved with that since 1981. My kids came through the program and everything else. It’s just a way to give back. I mean, the rodeo is a Western cowboy lifestyle, a lot of stuff has just always been an ardent, ingrained in me. So, I had an opportunity years ago through a friend to join the rodeo. That has been 21, 22 years ago.
Darryl: Is that right?
Todd: So, just as a volunteer. San Antonio Rodeo is basically all volunteers. There’s very few paid employees. Just volunteered and worked my way up to where now I’m chairman of the committee and really enjoy what we do. We get to really support the scholarship program and the Junior Livestock Auction.
Darryl: I love it. It’s so much fun. It’s a really, really important part of our culture, so thank you for doing that.
Todd: Yes, you’re welcome. [16:59].1]
Darryl: Yes, this is just going by fast, but a couple of more questions, if that’s okay.
Todd: Okay, yeah.
Darryl: So, your son is running a business? Tell me a little bit about that.
Todd: He’s in the exotic <unclear [17:07].5> wildlife business.
Darryl: Yeah, yeah, high fence.
Todd: Antelope. Yeah, high fence stuff and stuff like that, and so he’s got a breeding operation, and so I help him out. I help make deliveries for him and do some stuff like that. At times, I kind of joke around I’m the vice president of taking care of the nursery. We’ve got some animals that the mothers may not care for them really well, and so I take them under my wing and bottle-feed them and raise them up and stuff.
Darryl: So, y’all do exotic game hunts out there? Is that how it is?
Todd: No, he doesn’t conduct any hunting. It’s strictly a breeding and selling operation.
Darryl: Yeah, okay, that’s good. Yeah, I know, we’ve had a couple clients do that and I went out there and got to see the operation. People don’t know the care that’s done for those animals is top notch.
Todd: Oh, it is, absolutely. You don’t realize our native whitetail deer and species like that, they have the ability, and they put on fat and stuff, so they can survive the winters just fine. The African game normally doesn’t have that ability, so you’ve got to be diligent on your feeding programs and stuff to get them prepared to survive. The winters, even people outside of Texas may not think we get cold down here, but we do. [18:11].3]
Darryl: Did y’all lose a lot of axis in this last freeze?
Todd: We didn’t lose anything, no.
Darryl: Because y’all kept them fat?
Todd: Yeah, we kept them fed.
Darryl: Yeah, because a lot of people lost half, at least half of what they were used to in the axis population.
Todd: No, we kept them fed. We have shelters. We put propane-powered heat under them so they can get out of it. No, everything made it through just fine.
Darryl: So fun. That’s fun. So, Rodeo, helping your son, and you mentioned a third thing.
Todd: Contract back, do some contracting in the electrical trades, too.
Darryl: Yeah, would that be with CPS or with …?
Todd: It’ll be ultimately for CPS, but through a sub.
Darryl: Yeah, okay. Yeah, I get it. Yep, that makes sense. I want to make sure people understand this. There’s going to be a general contractor who is responsible for all the bidding and all the particulars, and then they go get the deals with CPS, and then they go find subs like you to help with kind of getting their team together, and that’s your role and you’re talking about doing that going forward. [19:05].6]
Darryl: To the degree that you want to, right?
Todd: Yes, you’re not obligated, but you have the ability to work.
Darryl: This is kind of an ideal scenario for a lot of people listening. I mean, in some people, you’re older, and you’re saying, “Man, I wish I would have done this,” and some people are just like, This is really cool. But the thing I want to really press on is for the youth to know that this is really a cool career path that you’re laying out and I hope it inspires some people, because you didn’t become an expert in a trade. You became curious in a trade.
It opened the door for you to get it with CPS, not only with CPS, but to actually get in the lane that you wanted to get in. It became a career. You became a manager. You were able to retire at 55. Now you have the freedom to choose what you want. You can be a contractor, which is self-employed, it means you get to pick your work, you’re not forced to do it, but giving back to the community. I mean, I know it’s not a perfect life, but this is a pretty good gig, especially for those people who are saying, “I want to be in a trade.” This is kind of the ideal scenario.
Todd: It is, yes. Yeah, real fortunate.
Darryl: Congratulations, yeah. And I’m sure you had a supportive wife. [20:03].2]
Todd: Yes, very much so.
Darryl: Yeah, that matters.
Todd: It does.
Darryl: Got to give her some credit along the way, too. The last question I have, and appreciate, first of all, you being here and sharing this with me, but the last question I have is probably the most important question: what’s your favorite salsa?
Todd: Honestly, my favorite salsa is one I make myself. I like to make salsa at home.
Darryl: Is that right?
Todd: Yeah, and I’ve got a kind of a recipe that I’ve developed that I really like. So, I like a roasted type salsa.
Todd: I’ll roast garlic and onions in a pan with some olive oil and get a nice kind of burnt flavor a little bit. And then I’ll mix it in my habaneros and jalapenos and tomatoes. I’ll stew all of them first and then blend it up, and I just really enjoy it.
Darryl: That sounds perfect. So, do you like it hot?
Todd: I like it pretty hot. Yeah.
Darryl: Do you like it warm, like when you eat it?
Todd: Yeah, when I first cook it and blend it, it’s warm. It’s really good. But, honestly, the heat comes on as it cools. After you’ve stored it a little bit in the fridge, it seems like it gets hotter for some reason. [21:00].5]
Darryl: Ooh, I love it. Todd, it’s been good. It’s been fun. I learned a lot about you. It really was inspiring, I hope other people are learning. I think, for me, I was just at the Texas legislation, thinking about this real issue, and I feel encouraged that there’s a good career path for those people that want to be in a trade, and I think it’s actually not normally just an alternative; it could be a very primary career path for many people. So, I appreciate you kind of sharing that story and laying out that vision.
Todd: Absolutely. Enjoyed it.
Darryl: Thanks for being here.
Todd: Alright, thank you.
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