40 Days Old

On Friday, I celebrated my 40th day as an apprentice electrician. I’ve come a long way in the last eight weeks! I’ve logged 324 hours on my first job site. I’ve gotten stronger, more comfortable on ladders, more confident drilling into concrete and more proficient in installing everything just right. Sure, I’ve screwed up and made some mistakes; and it takes me a bit longer to complete something I’m doing for the very first time. My mistakes have been mostly minor and have warranted a decent razzing from my co-workers, and I’ve taken it all in stride. They told me some of the blunders they made as a first term apprentice and at one point, I was crying because I was laughing so hard. I’ve been chewed out twice and forgiven – or so I thought – twice.

Before my journeyman (who is not a man) went over my review with me on Friday, I was celebrating the things I’ve learned and the competencies I’ve gained. During my first week, I had no clue what a split-bolt, strut nut, flush-shell anchor or a mechanical lug was and today, I not only know what they are, I know how and when to use them! During my first two weeks, I was clumsy and nervous in scaling a ten foot ladder with a heavy roto-hammer. Today, I no longer balk at squeezing myself into a tight space and reaching carefully in order to set ceiling anchors. This new career path suits me and I can tell it resonates with my authentic self. I was so excited to create something tangible and beneficial. There is so much more to learn during my next five years as an apprentice and I can’t wait to be a competent electrician!

My journeywoman, however, sees things very differently. For her, there was no celebrating my small and large gains in the last eight weeks. She exasperatedly told me, “You’re just so NEW! You’re too green.” Today, I am licking my wounds and wondering how significantly this review will haunt or damage me from this point forward. At least I don’t have to appear before the training center’s apprentice committee! I suppose I am grateful for this.

To understand more about my journeywoman, picture Margaret Cho with light brownish-green eyes and honey colored hair. “Marge” is stocky. She is fierce and although I’ve seen her laugh and have normal conversations, she mostly scowls. She’s been in this trade for about 18 years and she knows her shit. I think she scares some of the other guys: they SHOULD be scared! It was from one of them that I learned the term “bird-dogging” because he was bellyaching about how she was always watching him and micro-managing him when he was her apprentice. (This is the same guy who made a couple mistakes in setting up a simple riser, and who misidentified a part we needed to order. Sounds like he still needs some degree of managing.) Marge – my journeywoman – does not sugar coat things. She’s abrupt and she’s rough around the edges and when she talks to me, she’s almost screaming and I can’t understand all of what she says anyway because we’re working in a mechanical room that is loud and requires both of us to wear earplugs.

A couple weeks ago, I woke up to the fact that I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t with Marge. Her two favorite questions to yell at me are: “Well?! What are you waiting for?!” and “Why are you doing it THAT way? What are you doing?!” Here’s a classic example: the day after she’d chastised me for the need to anticipate – and therefore set up for – the day’s tasks, she yelled at me for getting the ladders and equipment out to finish the conduit installation we’d been working on the previous day. Apparently, priorities had changed and we needed to jump to another area instead of immediately finishing what we’d started.

In her review, she wrote down that I showed “a lack of common sense.” She was still fuming mad and boggled about the “upstairs” incident, the keys incident, and the morning I moved my car. To put the “upstairs” incident in perspective, I reminded her that as the first term apprentice, and therefore, the lowest dog on the ladder, it was my responsibility to pick up the material orders and deliver them to our two main storage areas: either the 5th floor or the sub-basement. I ran convoluted paths between stairs and elevator several times in the typical day. When our team in the sub-basement needed materials, I was sent to get them from the 5th floor. The 5th floor was where our foreman had set up his desk, where our main lock boxes were and where we all congregated first thing in the morning. To me, it seemed like the central coordinating point of our project. Soon after our start date, the downstairs work crew was working in both the basement and the sub-basement levels. And it was during this time that Marge asked me to get something from “upstairs.” I immediately put down my project and sprinted up to the 5th floor in search of the right bolts and thingies to bring back down. It made sense to go to the 5th floor because I’d picked up two deliveries earlier in the day and had been instructed to organize all the new materials on the 5th floor. Surely, the new thingies we needed had just arrived and that’s why we hadn’t stocked them downstairs, right? My stomach puckered up and I started to panic when I couldn’t find what we needed. I sprinted to the rooftop work area to see if, perhaps, the other work crew had the thingies we needed. Maybe they’d pulled the entire supply from the 5th floor? Nope. Out of luck. Great – I’m sure I’ll be blamed for this. By the time I returned downstairs, Marge informed me I’d been gone TOO LONG and that she’d just gone up and grabbed the materials herself. I was mystified. How could she have beaten me to the 5th floor? When I asked her this, she rolled her eyes at me and yelled, “I meant UPSTAIRS – in the basement level!” Oh. So the next time she sent me looking for materials “upstairs”, I was quick enough to clarify with her: did she mean the 5th floor, or the basement? Another eye-roll and angry huff for me, and apparently, this is my “lack of common sense.”

Another way in which I displayed a “lack of common sense” was the morning I picked up the keys. This was the same morning I learned the phrase “dollar waiting on a dime” and I learned about work flow and what NOT to do (ever again)! Here I was, all happy to be walking into our work site early in the morning. What a gorgeous day! You could see the mountains and it was neither too hot nor too cold. I congratulated myself on arriving extra-early because it was my turn to fetch our site keys from the lock box. Since the keys were stored in the basement level, it made sense to open up and prepare those levels for the day’s work ahead. The alternative was to take the keys to the 5th floor, open up those levels and then go back downstairs – then upstairs again to return the keys. So I opted for the most efficient choice and I quickly unlocked our access points downstairs. However, it must not have been quickly enough because by the time I emerged on the 5th floor, I saw five of our seven crew members waiting outside. I looked at my watch: it was 6:38am, I had the only set of keys, our work day started at 6:30am – and those extra eight minutes were a very big deal. Clearly, the right choice to make was to take the keys to the 5th floor, open up those levels and then go back downstairs – then upstairs again to return the keys. And if I had done that? Well, I do not doubt Marge would have found a time to yell, “Why did you do THAT? You were already on the basement level! The upstairs crew would have waited!”

The review had about six sections to it: attendance/punctuality, safety, interest, skills, attitude, etc. I can’t remember how they were divided up because I’m still reeling from Friday. Despite me NEVER being late and usually a few minutes early, I received a 7 (from scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being best) on the attendance/punctuality section. Marge explained that because I’m so new, there’s no way I’d earn an 8, 9 or 10 on this first review. All my other rankings were 5 or 6. She thinks I have low mechanical ability. I wanted so badly to defend myself. How can somebody with low mechanical ability squeeze between a scalding hot pipe and other obstacles in order to install conduit without getting burned? In some of those crevices, everything had to be done one-handed because there was no room for my other hand to fit.

My foreman found me later to give me a pep talk and to semi-apologize for Marge’s “rough around the edges” way of being. I don’t mind the rough around the edges part. And I guess, traditionally, this trade is hard on the newbies. I just hope the review has some scalability based on the reviewer. From what I hear, Marge is hard on new apprentices. She admits it herself. He assured me he’d talk to the safety officer and my manager at the shop and de-harsh Marge’s review. He told me he thinks I have a good work ethic, a good attitude and that yes, I was indeed new and green.

Ultimately, I see how Marge has let me get my hands on the tools and materials; and she has (sort of) weathered my mistakes. She’s never had to tell me the same thing twice, and I’m sad this wasn’t acknowledged during my review. This job site has many non-textbook examples of installing conduit: it’s a tricky one! She has looked out for my safety and she has taken the time to give me valuable advice. In many ways, I realize how lucky I am to be getting this kind of hands-on experience during my first term of my apprenticeship. I’m just sad that any celebrations of the things I’ve learned, I can’t share with her. And I’m terrified that maybe this career change wasn’t a good one. What if I totally suck as an electrician? Maybe her scores of 5 and 6 indicate how much I suck. Something inside me, though, doesn’t believe this just yet. Surely the newness and the greenness can be overcome, right?

So tomorrow, I return to our job site. It’s not my turn to pick up the keys – thank goodness! I will arrive early and I will rejoice in the fact that I’m not in a sedentary office. I will do the best I can and I will work hard. And I will continue to learn and any harshness or rough around the edges communications, I will not take personally. I will find the humor in all the things I can and I will continue to have a willing attitude. And dammit, I will turn out as a stellar electrician! I’ve only got 4 years and 10 months to learn all the other good stuff. And even then, there will still be more to learn…

3 Comments on “40 Days Old”

  1. […] was the second gift I’ve ever received from a journeyman. Marge, My first (and by far, my harshest) journeywoman gave me a utility knife which serves as my main knife today. Of course, this was […]

  2. […] During the last six months, I have grown physically stronger, lost a pants size or two, gained self-confidence and learned some pretty cool technical skills. Once I stopped aching all the time (the first two months), I even have more energy. I’ve had SEVEN evaluations – none of which have been nearly as harsh as my first one. […]

  3. T says:

    the “dollar waiting on a dime” comment made me chuckle – I have a boss that used to say that constantly. I, however, am like a mule if pushed like that – so good on you for your attitude and willingness to continue. I have a feeling your trade is a bit like the military – they break you down to build you up. Meaning – no matter who you were or how well you did, you won’t hear it from Sarge (er…Marge) for now. Chin up, you are an inspiration! Rock on!!

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