Getting axed from his aerospace job five years ago turned Bill Lasser into Handyman Bill.
Like many workers in the Southern California aerospace industry, Lasser lost his job during a downsizing in the first half of the decade.
But unlike many of his peers, Lasser, then 56, had another vocation to fall back on when his search for a new engineering job went nowhere.
He started his one-man business, Handyman Bill, in 1994 and became a full-time jack of all trades, building bookcases, redoing kitchen cabinets, installing tile and even assembling playground equipment.
“I’m never going to get rich at it,” said Lasser, now 61, who works from his home in Northridge. “But I’m not looking to get rich.”
Many older people who found themselves unemployed in a rapidly shrinking job market might have panicked, fallen into depression or even considered moving to an area with more job opportunities.
Though Lasser said he managed to avoid those pitfalls, he was resentful about being laid off, with no notice, after a decade of service and annoyed by his treatment while searching for a new job.
He said loyal employees weren’t treated that way when he was younger. “Industry only cares about profits and how many sales were made today and how our stock’s doing today,” he said. “It’s a different world in which we live.”
Lasser spent much of his working life as an electromechanical engineer for Litton Industries Inc., Motorola and TRW Inc. In the early 1980s, he joined Sunnyvale-based California Microwave at its Woodland Hills facility, where he worked on equipment for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s C-130 military cargo plane and other aircraft. (Because of confidentiality requirements, Lasser can say little more than that he did engineering work.)
Then, in April 1994, Lasser and about 14 other employees in his division were called into a 9 a.m., Friday meeting never a good sign. “We were told we didn’t get the contracts on work we need, so be out by noon,” he said.
After being with the same company for 12 years, Lasser suddenly found himself looking for another job. He recalls that a number of prospective employers lacked professionalism and etiquette. Some never responded to his resumes and phone calls. Others only wanted to interview him over the phone.
“It’s impossible to see passion on someone’s face (over the phone),” he said.
Among other things, he was told he was not sufficiently computer literate for some jobs and had too much experience for others.
“I kept getting ‘you’re overqualified,’ ” he said. “And I think, in one or two instances, the people interviewing me were intimidated and they said (to themselves), ‘Gee, this guy could have my job if I screwed up.’ ”
But Lasser had little time to mope. The kind of handyman work that he had long done on weekends started coming in fast, and he saw his opportunity to make some money to cover the bills. Eventually, he came to think that there might be more opportunities for him doing that work than trying to get back into aerospace.
In fact, he said, he used earnings from his part-time handyman work to put two of his three daughters through UCLA. “My wife was saying, ‘Don’t set yourself up for rejection anymore. You don’t need it,’ ” he said.
So Lasser stopped looking for work in aerospace, and became Handyman Bill. Years earlier, when he first started doing the work, he charged $10 an hour. After steadily raising his fee over the years usually a dollar or two a year Lasser now charges $30 an hour and makes between $35,000 and $40,000 a year.
“As I said, I’m never going to get rich,” he says, adding that he was making close to $70,000 a year before being laid off.
But with his children grown, and only his wife and himself to support, he said he doesn’t need to make a lot of money.
Lasser’s customers praised his skills and punctuality something they said many handymen lack.
“He was the most reliable,” said Richard Peters, owner of Northridge-based Creative Play Resources, a seller of playground swing sets who hires Lasser to assemble equipment after it’s delivered to homes. “(Reliability) was always the problem in the past. They were supposed to be somewhere on say a Tuesday, and they may not have shown up. (Lasser)’s the only one who’s doing it for us now.”
Lasser says that becoming self-employed has provided him with a new set of skills and knowledge. “Being self-employed, I find with any mistakes I make, the buck stops with me. I pay for it,” he said. “When you know you’re the owner, you’re more aware, more alert to not making a mistake.”
Still, after being a full-time handyman for nearly five years, and now just a few years away from his 65th birthday, Lasser is considering another change retirement.
“I’m thinking about (doing) it toward the end of the year, and just working a little part-time,” he said. “I’ll see what my accountant tells me is the best economic choice.”