Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Stand Down: Tales from an Electrical Apprenticeship

The intense 10-hour days are wearing me down. I'm constantly exhausted: by the time I slog through the afternoon traffic (about 60 to 90 minutes to cover 21 miles), I have only a couple hours to myself before collapsing into bed. Time is the scarce commodity right now and I am greedy for more me time!

Today, we were sent home from the job site at 1:30pm. Since we start our days at 6:00am, it was only an eight hour day. Whooo-hoooo! An afternoon all to myself! I could barely contain my glee. Yet there was a dismal group vibe in the air. Over 300 of us were being walked off the site due to an accumulation of incidents. We were in "stand down" mode: a punishment from the general contractor who was basically saying to us, "No more work (or money) for you!" Politics and intensified stress have wormed into the scene: schedules and completion dates are tight. The drive to get it done is coming directly into conflict with safe practices.

The attitude of work-as-reward makes me angry. We're experiencing a modified nuance of the "You're lucky to have a job" attitude. To be fair, if safety is suffering, a collective reset and refocus is definitely in order. We've been told that our first priority tomorrow is to skip stretch and flex and report to an auditorium. Ah - here it comes! A group experience of being talked to like a child when, in fact, the bickering is happening amongst the upper management. What I suspect is happening is a nonsensical loop that goes something like this:

1. You need to get this task done.
2. But wait! You can't do it like that!
3. No, it's fine because that has been approved and signed off. We're going to go ahead and get it done now.
4. Stop what you're doing! Who approved this?
5. Why haven't you gotten the task done?

Being in a skilled trade, especially on such a large project, does not mean we are exempt from the basic management bullshit that tends to crop up in any organization. And that's too bad. As further punishment (or reset/refocus, if you want to call it that), our scheduled Saturday shift was canceled at the last minute. Saturdays are automatic time-and-a-half shifts and I know many of my co-workers have arranged their financial lives to where they depend on the 10 hour days and the 60/60/50 weekly hour rotations. Even though it didn't affect me personally, yanking this day away did not seem like it was in the spirit of getting some rest and realigning safety priorities. It's an ice-cold reminder of the importance of budgeting in such an ebb-and-flow career. Also, knowing that no project lasts forever is a comfort to me right now. I want to remind myself to not cling to security and predictability so hard that I fear change. Being in this craft requires a lot of trust in the universe and go-with-the-flow mentality: the next project will come!

This threat of, "If you don't behave exactly correctly, you'll be removed" is enhanced in our basic electrician training and it seems to flow as a continuation from our mainstream education system. It is an intimidation method: a variation on the theme of, "You're lucky just to have a job." It feels like mild brainwashing and it awakens my inner rebel. It makes me grit my teeth and fuel my desires to be a kick-ass electrician. Because when it comes down to the bare bones: being a skilled craftswoman and being united with other skilled craftswomen/men will trump management bluster. I am grateful to my foreman and general foreman who have demonstrated cool heads and suave interpersonal skills in this heated situation. They have shown an excellent example. And I'm grateful to my crew, who works really safely. I think once the project is completed, the customer will see that despite their own efforts to thwart and confuse, the end product was done well.

The Stand Down was originally posted on My Electric Avenue by Jeanne Slate.


Allan Masri said...

This post is valuable to me for its insight into our industrial mindset and work habits. I remember very well working on boring or stupid projects and calming myself down by saying, don't worry, it'll be over soon. As one who has seen those management conversations, though, I guarantee there is no give and take. The top manager simply says, "Get it done", and their subordinates don't question the decision. The most common ploy for managers is to blame the workers, who don't make project decisions and can only react to the demands made upon them.

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