Not your average clock-puncher's post: the life of a tower tech is 'never boring'

What do you want to be when you grow up? Most of us can recall deflating into a chair across from a high school counselor, that incessant question relentlessly pressed into our brains.

But for all the weight that question is given, a lot of lucrative careers are left off the list.  

This was certainly the case for Eric Popielarski, who — thanks to an unexpected find on Craigslist — went from teaching English to climbing cell towers.  

“People see cell phone towers all the time, but they don't really think about them,” he told us in an interview. “And people tell you all these jobs you could have growing up, but nobody once mentioned cell tower work to me. Your guidance counselor in high school doesn't tell you that this is a trade you could do.”  

The job certainly has its problems and challenges. It isn’t for the faint of heart — as climbers are continuously scaling hundreds if not thousands of feet in the air in all types of weather.  

But it’s also clear that, for tower technicians like Popielarski, the role is a free way to live and travel. “It's never boring,” he emphasized. He’d take it over a typical nine to five any day.   

“I've done a lot of project management, office work, going to meetings and I answered emails all the time, and I hated that. I love being in the field all day. I love being outside in nature.” 

As above, so below: climbing the career ladder  

When Popielarski came into the industry, he had a resume riddled with restaurant work and a few years as an English teacher. 

“I had absolutely no construction or telecommunications experience,” he said.  

Worn out by the dismal job prospects in Philadelphia, he moved to Colorado on a whim, and in 3 months landed a job as a tower technician thanks to a listing on Craigslist. Though not your typical job-search engine, tower tech postings on the site were relatively common for the sector in the 2010s. 

For half a decade, Popielarski climbed and loved it. But as most tower climbers know, the job can't be sustained forever. Following a wrist injury, he left for a brief stint in project management and office work before returning to the tower industry in the early days of the pandemic.  

But climbing the career ladder for Popielarski has meant climbing down the tower. He now handles foundation work — constructing, preparing and repairing the base of cell towers. 

Though his role isn’t all that common, he recalled his move into the area being a simple matter of keeping his ears open and throwing his hat in the ring when he heard of the opportunity.  

Despite no longer climbing, the job is still very active. He gets to run heavy equipment machines and tractors, “big kid toys" as he referred to them, to support the build of guyed and monopole towers.  

This is why Popielarski recommends this industry to all the folks who “can't sit still in office” and want to turn that restive itch into a career of travel and hands-on problem solving. 

And for those that do consider looking into the work, Popielarski’s insider tip: familiarize yourself with construction engineering basics. Knowing how to read construction drawings, different types of steel and how to communicate with engineers will give you a big leg up in the sector, he advised.  

The pay and say of a tower tech    

Not only is tower technician work itself unique, but the structure of the role, both in pay and schedule, is not what most may be used to.  

The time on the job is often a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule. Popielarski recognized that it can be difficult for people to adjust to, but he has grown to favor it.  

“You do work two weeks straight, but then you have two weeks off,” he explained. “A lot of people don't get that. I prefer that rather than having just weekends off.”  He also has a lot of flexibility in designing how that fits into his life. “I can basically just tell my boss, ‘I'm available to work these days,’ and they'll work around that.” 

For some techs like Popielarski, the pay is also atypical — based on completed sites and projects rather than an hourly wage, so it relies on consistency.  

Just after the early waves of the pandemic, for instance, the demand was exceptionally high as civil foundation work ramped up. High demand meant good money. “It was pretty awesome,” Popielarski recalled. “There was a lot of work to do... When it’s good, it’s good. Nobody argues.” 

Popielarski is thankful to have an employer offering solid benefits like health insurance and a 401k program, especially through slower work periods. This is where he feels the industry has work to do in showing support for tower techs.  

Not that long ago, Popielarski recalled a lot of turnkey work, providing start-to-finish services for broadband providers — a lucrative method for tower workers. Now, companies parcel out different construction processes of the project in a slew of subcontracting.  

“They're able to really drive down the prices on stuff, and the ultimate person that suffers is the tower worker themselves,” he said — both in terms of wages and safety

Popielarski wants current and new technicians alike to “stay safe and vigilant," rely on each other and remember that their work is essential in keeping people connected. And a good employer should support that.  

“It shouldn’t feel like workers have to beg to get the work and pay that they deserve,” he further explained. “Companies should be grateful to have the qualified, skilled people that show up and do this type of work, this dangerous work.”