Occasionally, I imagine myself in another career. Here I am as a surgeon (until I see blood), an actor (“Are they booing?”) or a real estate agent. (Here's my card!)
There's lots I could do. However, there is one career calling I will never, ever, not in a million years try, and Justin Villeneuve does it everyday, and has a good time doing it too.
Villeneuve's a high-rise window washer, Villeneuve's idea of nirvana is sitting perched on a plank of wood 100 meters high, cleaning windows while listening to music.
There's no place he'd rather be, except at home with his wife and two young children.
“It's an intimidating line of work, but once you know what you're doing, it's super-fun and rewarding,” Villeneuve says. “I love washing windows, I love the view, the freedom.”
The story begins in Vancouver where Villeneuve worked as a professional musician, fronting the metal band I, Emperor. Off-tour, he tried washing windows after a friend saw a window washer rappelling down an office building in Vancouver. Villeneuve took to it like a fish to water.
The money is good and the work is seasonal, April to November, which suited Villeneuve fine.
“It was perfect because I could play music in the winter, and clean windows in the summer,” he says.
He might still be playing loud music had he not fallen in love with a girl from Ottawa. They moved back to the capital, got married and launched High-Rise Guys, claiming he was more nervous about launching his business than hanging 300 feet in the air.
“It's scary starting a business,” he says. “I had a lot to learn. Big decisions, and everything was so expensive, trucks, licences, website. I needed to be unique to the industry. It's a very competitive business.”
They only do bosenchair or boatswain chair work, a single washer sitting on a plank of wood chair that only goes down, unlike the bigger window washers on motorized swing stages, which can strand washers in a power failure.
The job's biggest risks are the elements. High winds, extreme cold and the heights. Falling is theoretically possible, but unlikely. A lot would have to go wrong. Fortunately, Villeneuve's hasn't encountered any dangerous situations, either indoors or out, in his 15 years washing buildings.
“I'm so focused on the glass, I can't peek, but I see a lot of cats who will come to the glass to play,” he says. “I feel bad for the dogs because they're stressed out because an intruder's at the window, but cats just play. Occasionally, someone will offer me a beer at 9 am, but if it's a beautiful day, I'll have a coffee with them.”
Surprisingly, given the heights they work at, there's no shortage of people who want to work for Villeneuve. Or, more accurately, want to try the work. All applicant have to take a licensed course, but even success doesn't guarantee success. The moment of truth comes the first time they have to step off the roof of a 30-story building.
It happens all the time.
“I don't hire thrill seekers because it's dangerous work and you have to respect the environment,” Villeneuve explains. “I don't know if its the freedom but the people who are drawn to this work tend to not follow the crowd. There's something about this work that attracts musicians, bike couriers, rock climbers. A lot of guys listen to music or podcasts because you can be in the chair for an hour or longer. One student took a virtual class during the pandemic while working.”
“Being my own boss is the way to go,” he adds. “The next generation don't want to work for someone else necessarily. They want to create their own business. Don't be afraid. Do your diligence, prepare thoroughly, and do it.”