On the Hook

This is the first week I’ve been “on the hook” and I don’t like it one bit. Work has slowed down to the point of my construction manager telling me, “We have no work for you, but we’ll call you as soon as something comes up.” Basically, I am receiving an unannounced furlough of indeterminate length or, through different lenses: unpaid vacation days. I like the sound of the latter much better. This is known as “staying on the hook” or “being on the hook”. Even though it would be easier and more comfortable to go with the flow and marry myself to this shop, I’m shaking myself outside my comfort zone and begging the apprentice training center to rotate me to a different contractor. Besides, I was never good at sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring!

Breaking Out of the Comfort Zone
For the last four months, my contractor has sent me to bona fide electrical work sites where I’ve had a blast learning from some skilled characters. Some days, I’ve come home exhausted and sore. Other days have been less arduous yet really satisfying. I think I have been lucky to be exposed to so many nuances of industrial and commercial electrical systems. Yet a pattern somehow got carved that I do not like: my time on the job lasted around two or three weeks, then I was sent to our warehouse (“shop”). Shop work, for me, is nowhere near as satisfying as field work. It is sweeping, driving, delivering needed tools to job sites, cleaning up field jobs that have ended, putting away inventory, picking up the recycling inside the office, and – during the holiday season – setting up and taking down the Christmas decorations. Some days, I raked leaves and gave thanks that I was being paid to be outside. Gopher work! Initially, I counted myself lucky because I was earning my same wage despite the significantly diminished challenge level. Plus, it was better than sitting at home (like I am now), right? During the longer stretches of shop time, I gritted my teeth and challenged myself to stay tough and put up with it because management told me some bigger projects would open up in the new year. I brought engaging reading materials to read during my breaks, I got proficient on the forklift and became more comfortable driving the big crane and bucket trucks. All this time: throughout most of the fall and up until now, I had been holding my breath for the next big “real” job assignment.

Last fall, when this pattern of putting me in the shop starting feeling heavy, I set a deadline of “the new year” before talking to my manager and the training center about getting me to where I needed to be: in the field, learning electrical work. January arrived and I waited. And I set my next internal deadline. This one was: “once I’m in a position where I’m not learning anything.” Shop days were excruciatingly long. For the most part, I kept a good attitude and worked hard at my tasks. The truth is: although there were enjoyable aspects to my shop days, I was not learning hands-on electrical skills like I should be at this stage of my apprenticeship. Once I was honest with myself, I saw my shop-gopher time as detrimental to my training.

I Must Stop Being “Shopgirl” Now

What had really jolted me was when some of the electricians I knew were coming by and saying things like, “Still in the shop, huh?” or “In the shop again?” My intuition was screaming that somehow, my relationship with this small, long-established and family-based company had taken on a frittering overtone. Maybe I had been too complacent at first. Too easygoing because I believed any day, I would receive word of a “real” job site assignment. At some point, wouldn’t it be too expensive for them to keep me in the shop? I’d rather not find out.

As an apprentice electrician, I have 8,000 hours of on the job training to complete. Our training center has detailed 7,500 of those hours. For example, about 1000 on-the-job hours should be dedicated to learning branch circuits and wiring. Same for large raceways and wireways: 1000 on-the-job hours. Recommended shop-gopher time? 250 hours. (They don’t refer to it as “shop-gopher” time, by the way) My current shop time accrual is about 525 hours and it’s time to stop holding my breath in the hopes of “the big (real) job” being handed to me.

I’m scared that management and my co-workers have gotten too comfortable in seeing me at the warehouse, rather than as an apprentice electrician on a job site.

I Want to Advocate for My Own Training

As much as I love my electrical contractor and all the characters who work there, I cannot remain blindly loyal if the price is lost training opportunity. This one is hard for me because it would be so much easier to go through the motions and kill time. Yet if I did this, when the time came to sit for my electrician’s license, I would have only intellectual rather than hands-on knowledge. I would have squandered my training opportunities.

I’m experiencing all kinds of uncomfortable truths about myself. If my contractor had given me a firm return to work date (to a “real” site, that is!), I would have probably cheered and treated myself to a mini staycation! While bored out of my skull at the shop, I had a huge mental list of things I’d rather be doing. Yet, because of the uncertainty of my time off, I see that I was thrown off kilter and stressed out – and I’ve accomplished very few of those “rather be doing” ideas I’d dreamt up. I hate to admit it: but I value the predictability and stability my job has given me. The variation in co-workers and projects give me just enough change to stay vibrant.

I’m angry that my contractor didn’t just issue a reduction in workforce. That is, I think my contractor should have laid me off. I’m anxious about my finances because I have scrimped and clawed and scraped to put together some savings – yet if I’m having to dip into those savings so early, how will I ever get ahead? Of course, this thought completely contradicts my notions of a staycation above.

If I had received a direct and clean lay-off notice, I could have been listed on our training center’s out of work list. Electrical contractors who need apprentices pull from this list. I’m confused about my current contractor’s willingness to furlough me indefinitely rather than releasing me to this list. Is this a form of flattery? That they want to “keep” me? Or is it mere convenience for them? In asking for a rotation to a different contractor, am I breaking some kind of favorable relationship? Regardless, I see it as a distortion of our region’s worker pool. Does this mean every name on our training center’s out of work list has some ratio of furloughed apprentices behind it?

Being on the hook means I will not meet the minimum work hours required to access my health insurance, and must pay to make up that difference. This part is not such a big deal. The big deal to me right now is asking for a realistic training opportunity and moving beyond my comfort zone.

I’m neither the first nor the last apprentice to change employers. And I know I have the confidence and sense of humor to endure (and learn from!) the micro-culture I will experience while working for my next contractor. If nothing else, it will make for some good stories, no?

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