Joseph Ahrens, ABC's 2024 Craft Professional

Doing the Work: ABC's 2024 Craft Professional of the Year Joseph Ahrens

Craft Professional of the Year Joseph Ahrens: ‘It’s not who you know but how hard you work that will decide your future in this merit industry.’
By Christopher Durso
June 3, 2024

The last thing Joe Ahrens wanted to do was go into the family business. That would be Ahrens Corporation, the plumbing and civil-contracting company his grandfather and uncle founded in San Diego in 1981, where his father, brother, uncles and cousins also worked.

Ahrens didn’t want any of that. In high school he played football, did a lot of fishing, rode dirt bikes and surfed. “I’m like, I don’t need to do construction,” he says in an interview.

But when he graduated, he needed to do something. His brother suggested that Ahrens consider a plumbing apprenticeship, showing him his own paycheck as an enticement. “I said, ‘You make that much in a week?’” Ahrens says. “He said, ‘Yep.’ And I said, ‘All right, sign me up.’”
Something must have clicked, because 20 years later, not only is Ahrens a general superintendent with HPS Mechanical—one of San Diego’s largest plumbing contractors—he’s also been named ABC’s Craft Professional of the Year. His journey from “All right, sign me up” to the pinnacle of industry recognition is a story of finding your path, realizing your full potential and paying it forward.

“Falling into construction really just suited me well,” Ahrens says, “because hard work pays off and there’s always growth.”


On his nineteenth birthday, in March 2004, Joseph Ahrens signed up for a plumbing apprenticeship program with ABC San Diego—the same program his brother went through. It clicked with him almost immediately. “From playing football, I realized I needed coaches, I needed guidance,” he says. “And once I got into ABC, the structure was there, the teachers were there, the positive people onsite and offsite were there to push you in the right direction.”

Ahrens followed his family into a job with Ahrens Corporation, too, but he was let go after two years. His explanation today is direct, almost philosophical: “The reason was, they didn’t have work for me.” He didn’t feel great about that, of course, but barely a week later, ABC San Diego put him on to another job, as an apprentice with Pacific Rim Mechanical. He was there for a year, then finished his apprenticeship and cut his teeth as a young lead journeyman at Interpipe Contracting.

“I realized it’s not who you know but how hard you work that will decide your future in this merit industry,” Ahrens says. “I quickly linked up with the new foreman and superintendent and realized I can work at any company and make the same wages. From that point on, I sought to work for ABC’s largest companies on the largest projects I could get on.”

Mission accomplished, and before he turns 40 (that’ll happen next March). As a general superintendent with HPS, Ahrens has been responsible for the plumbing systems along with civil instruction on some of the biggest and most sensitive projects in Southern California, including at military bases, ports, airports and police stations. He’s worked on colleges, high schools, malls, ballparks, churches, casinos, hospitals, restaurants and theaters.

Some days, it’s like Ahrens is everywhere at the same time—supervising, negotiating, mentoring, training, inspecting, estimating, managing, delegating, strategizing. He says: “I take the call when the plans don’t work, when the argument is at a stalemate and no one agrees, when a person gets hurt, when an inspection won’t pass, when a vendor makes a mistake, when a project manager or superintendent doesn’t agree, when an owner is frustrated and wants answers, a vehicle breaks down on the way to work, a pipe blows up, an apprentice needs guidance—just to name a few typical phone calls.”


Inside this tangled knot of a job, Ahrens keeps his eyes on the common thread: his people. From his earliest days as an apprentice, he remembers the guiding influence of ABC San Diego’s instructors, members of his family, superintendents he worked for—their interest in his wellbeing, their ability to motivate him, their commitment to pushing him forward.

“They picked me up at some of the roughest times in my younger life and put me back on my feet and pointed me in a direction—like, ‘You’re gonna go this way,’” Ahrens says. “For a lot of people, sometimes that’s what it takes to get you to the next year. Then a decade goes by, and then all of a sudden, another decade goes by. And it’s the smallest moments.”

Now it’s Ahrens’ turn. The general superintendent is very aware of his place in the hierarchy of construction work and the people looking to him for answers and encouragement. It’s why he takes the call when the plans don’t work or when the argument is at a stalemate. “I’m in the middle of it,” Ahrens says, “and I want to leave it better than the way I got it.” He adds: “I carry the weight of knowing each of my guys’ livelihood is in my hands at times, and not responding to an email or being professional could affect his or her 40-hour paycheck. It’s an agreement: My crews work hard for me, and in return, I do the same.”

Safely, we might add. That’s another part of Ahrens’ agreement with his people, even at this point in his career—or maybe especially at this point—when he’s not as hands-on with them as he once was. His superintendents take care of the day-to-day, holding the line on health and safety on every jobsite, addressing items as they come up. Ahrens sees his role as running interference—providing “a buffer between pressures, schedules and unrealistic expectations for production which lead to unsafe practices.”

“My crews work for me, and I work for the owner or general contractor,” he says. “Providing my superintendents with the philosophy ‘I will handle the schedule and onsite general contractor/owner’ gives them the sense of a cushion, to not work outside their parameters or break safety rules.”
Whether it’s safety or pretty much anything else, Ahrens tends toward leading by example. To encourage his crews to wear high-end safety glasses—“the cool ones,” as he calls them—Ahrens buys a pair for anyone who can keep track of a pair of “normal glasses” for a month. After smoking for 20 years, he quit during COVID, using the pandemic as “a crutch to kick the habit.” Now, he uses that experience as a case study in “finding the crutch to help you quit the addiction—your family, your lifestyle, your kids. Whatever it is, be stronger than the addiction.”


When ABC San Diego first contacted Ahrens about helping launch its Young Mentorship Program last year, his first inclination was to say no. He was busy, he thought. Plus, was he even old or experienced enough to be someone’s mentor?

But then he realized he’d already been doing that for years. “Building apprentices into plumbers,” he says, “has been a priority ever since I started running my own projects.” And, having benefited from the careful attention of “some of San Diego’s best superintendents” during his training days, Ahrens felt obligated to give back. “I came up working for some really hardnosed, old-school guys,” he says. “These are the guys that instilled in me—it’s every minute, every shift, every week, every month. This will pay off.”

So now Ahrens has his own mentee—an official one, alongside all the people he de facto mentors in the course of his day job—and tries to use their time together “to develop and help guide him in a positive, productive industry manner.” Truth be told, it’s not much of a stretch for a guy who never says no to talking about why construction is such a great career. Yes, he fell into it. Yes, his own family’s company let him go. And, no, he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life.

“Hard work pays off,” Ahrens says. “After a hard 40 hours’ worth of work, it’s never felt so good to receive that paycheck. You know you deserve that. Minute after minute, hour after hour, week after week, it grows from a little bit of nothing—from ‘I’m a first year’ to ‘I’m a fourth year’ to ‘I’m a superintendent.’ The opportunities are endless. And it starts with that hard work from that first shift.”

ABC's 2024 Craft Professional of the Year award is proudly sponsored by NCCER and Tradesmen International.

NCCER is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) education foundation created by the construction industry to establish standardized curriculum and assessments with portable credentials and certifications to develop skilled craft professionals. NCCER provides a comprehensive workforce development system that includes training, assessment and certification for the construction and maintenance industries.

Tradesmen International is the construction industry’s premier source for skilled craft professionals and labor-related services. Tradesmen supplies ABC members with strategies for maintaining the highest safety standards and improving workforce productivity while supporting efforts to contain costs related to workers’ comp, health care and unemployment. With more than 175 offices across North America, Tradesmen International can serve you in any U.S. state and Canada.

by Christopher Durso

Chris leads Construction Executive’s day-to-day operations—overseeing all print and digital content, design and production efforts, and working with the editorial team to tell the many stories of America’s builders and contractors. An experienced association magazine editor, writer and publications strategist, he is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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