The Wild Ride Continues

Another school year approaches and it seems like yesterday that I just graduated from the apprenticeship, although it’s been three months now. I must admit it has been a jam-packed quarter of a year! I was honored to be chosen by my JATC as this year’s “Outstanding Apprentice”, which meant I was given the opportunity to attend the 2011 National Training Institute (NTI) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once a year, IBEW electricians (who also teach) gather together and open their brains to hone their instructional skills and abilities. It’s really quite amazing when you stop and think about it. Our instructors come from working in the field and transform themselves into people who teach others about their trade and livelihood. Most of the people I spoke with at NTI work 40+ hours a week “in the field” and then devote themselves to teach two nights a week throughout the school year. These people are dedicated! Many have been doing it for years and years and what drives them is the sole desire to help others along.

I became lost in a sea of Journeymen and Masters of my field and it felt incredible.

In our classes and workshops, we examined our challenges in the classroom as instructors. Luckily, I had the chance to teach one of my own night classes before NTI began, so I had a brief introduction of what was to come. Teaching is an entirely different aspect of our trade, yet it is one that encompasses all of our collective experiences. As instructors, we draw on examples that occur in the field to aptly illustrate the theories and concepts that are covered in our books. It takes creativity, imagination and humor to keep a class going strong, not to mention the vast depths of knowledge and understanding of the material to be covered. It’s challenging and fun.

I met other apprentices who had recently “topped out” and were chosen as their Local Union’s “Outstanding Apprentice”. We exchanged stories and learned about all the differences between the various geographical regions throughout our National JATCs. It was inspiring to feel a part of something much larger than yourself, working toward common goals and being together in the struggle. (This is a recurring theme I have felt throughout all of my exposure to the organizations behind the electrical industry.) I hope to maintain the connections to these other “newbies” so that we can help one another navigate through all this new territory, together.

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Matriculation!

Dearest Readers,

I am thankful and grateful and proud to announce that as of June 1st 2011 (that’s today), I am no longer an Apprentice Wireman with Local 26 — my dues receipt now says Journeyman Wireman! What an accomplishment. Looking back, I still remember starting out in this program… the apprehension, the proving of wit and skill, the meeting new people, the not-knowing, the anxiety before a test, the grades, the nights at school that seemed endless sometimes, learning of new terms and words that only make sense to other electricians… and more recent memories… the meeting new people and the long conversations with old friends, the “shop talk”, the comparing of notes about this job and that, the extension of skills and knowledge to others just starting out, recognizing that blank look when you say “I need 10 lamps” and finally giving in to say “yes, 10 bulbs”. 😀

Five years is indeed a long time, but MAN! The satisfaction of finishing is like nothing else. When I bump into fellow apprentices who will be walking across that stage with me on Saturday, there’s a little glimmer in our eyes that communicates it all. No need to go on and on, because we all know it deep down inside. We’re proud of what we’ve learned, all that we’ve been through, and we can all say “It’s been a heck of a ride!”

These days at work, I’m still learning: that I must embrace my codebook to size things right the first time; how to balance the energy levels of my crew… motivate when necessary, antagonize for fun, have teaching moments when we can; how not to blow my top when it’s really not necessary; how to keep an eye on falling levels of various material that my guys need; how best to prioritize multiple projects that all have very close deadlines. Now that’s a far cry from learning to identify: 1/4-20×3/4″ bolts, 1/4″ fenders, 3/8″ flats and the fact that “strut” is also another name for “kindorf” or “C-channel”. Yes, we’ve come a long way!

Congratulations to every one of my peers, and here’s a toast to the next chapter!

It’s That Time of Year…

September seems to have flown by, and now we are midway through October. Already. On the job and around the school, conversations with other apprentices remind me that certain other years are going through the process of “transferring” from one company to another. It’s a mixed bag as to various feelings about the matter. Depending on which company you’re currently with, the transfer time is either a blessing or a blessing in disguise. You never know what’s on the other side of the fence. You may think you’ve got it good where you’re at, and then realize in a month with your new contractor that you HAD NO CLUE what good really is! Or you might land yourself in a mud pit. In the middle of December. Mud in December? Is that possible? Yes ladies and gentlemen, it surely is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My point is even if you find yourself in a mud pit in the middle of December, there is always something to be learned from the situation. You might come to understand that you really enjoy working outside. Or on that job, you *just might* bump into someone who could have a major influence in your future. At the very least, there’s a good story that will come of it. (And you know how we electricians LOVE to recount stories!)

On the classroom front, I’ve been having a lot of fun with my current exploits. I’m in the Trade Teaching course, which is designed to teach apprentices and journeymen how to take the lead; on the job and in the classroom. We’ve thus far covered the concept of public speaking and presentational materials. My most recent class focused on Power Point Presentations and we even had some lab time with the computers. Our first task is to design a five minute presentation on whatever subject we like. I thought it would be simple, seeing as how it’s only five minutes long. But therein lies the problem — it’s only five minutes long! Five minutes goes by in a blink of an eye. Surprisingly, I found that I still needed to prepare an outline before designing the final presentation. Quite a bit of time goes into these slideshows, and if you’re a perfectionist about visual elements, then it’s entirely too easy to fall down the bunny hole. Thursday we present. Fun fun!

Another Year, already?

During this past week’s evening class, I spoke with a few other 4th year apprentices, and was reminded that we’ll be getting our 5th year bump in pay very soon. In fact, it’s much sooner than I expected! Because I’m a creature of habit, I had in the back of my mind that we would be re-classified as 5th year apprentices in August — just like every year in the past. However, because we are in night school now, the re-classification comes in June, when we have completed our 2nd night course! That means I will be receiving pay at 80% of A-Journeyman scale within 3 months. I absolutely can not believe how fast these past years have come and gone. In other jobs that I’ve had before joining this trade, five years would have seemed like a lifetime! I suppose routine and boredom set in long before five years ever approached. As an electrician, I feel like 5 years has just barely scratched the surface. Even after three intense years of day-school training, and four+ years of on the job training, I honestly feel like there’s so much more to learn and get my hands on. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked under various foremen who have allowed me the opportunity to jump right in, from prints to production, that I have a pretty strong grasp of blueprints and can basically do the work on my own, from “roughing-in” all the way through to “finish” work. But that’s only one aspect of the trade. There’s control work for mechanical systems, lighting controls for extremely large and complex systems, building automation that integrates mechanicals, hvac and lighting, hospitals, theaters, schools, emergency generation, telecom, data centers… and the list can go on and on. What’s amazing is that for each and every one of these extra categories, there are special rules, regulations and specifications that go along with them. I’ve seen glimpses of these other aspects, but in no way could I say I’m an expert, and I would seriously question anyone who claims they are. Our trade just encompasses so many facets of the construction industry, you could spend a lifetime studying it or working on it and still have room to learn about something else. And that’s just the installation side of it! Then there’s the flip-side — personnel management: overseeing a helper, running a crew, being a truck-driver, estimating, purchasing material, material handling, being a foreman, being a general foreman, superintendent, project manager, etc. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow in this field. It’s rather astounding. So, to keep it in perspective, five years is nothing really.

Evening Courses

One of the fascinating aspects of this Local’s apprenticeship program is our ability to compress five years’ worth of education into three. Traditionally, (and concurrently in other regions of the country) “Book 1” is reserved for 1st year apprentices, “Book 2” is taught to 2nd years and so on. This format allows for a summer break between books but is also formatted for students to attend class in the evening, once or twice a week, thus lasting the full span of 5 years. Contrarily, our Local has negotiated a way for apprentices to have what we lovingly call “day-school” where we get the privilege of skipping a whole day’s work once every two weeks, in exchange for an 8-hour intensive day of classroom training, with pay from the Local. Not only does this format pump out accelerated apprentices (Book 5 knowledge after only 3 years in the trade), but it also makes the transition from Book to Book much smoother because we don’t have 3 months off for summers to forget everything we just learned. Additionally, it gives every apprentice the opportunity to tailor our continuing education through our last two years of the program — we actually get to choose what advanced courses we’d like to take! Each semester (fall and spring) classes are offered at our training facility that are open to 4th and 5th year apprentices and to A-Journeymen in our Local. It’s incredible how packed these classes are. They are held in the evenings, once a week for 14 weeks and cover a broad range of topics.

My current course is Renewable Energies and we’ve been studying topics such as wind energy, biomass, and of course, photovoltaics (PV). At the end of the course, we have the chance to sit for a knowledge exam that certifies the participation in the class and a basic level of calculation-based knowledge necessary for PV installations. And like many other certification-based courses, (ie, Fire Alarm, Telecommunications, Code) it is entirely up to the student to take the initiative and pay for and sit for the exam. It isn’t automatic, just by enrolling in the class. However, as I understand it just from talking to various representatives of employers and other mechanics, having a long list of certifications under your belt can certainly go a long way. If an apprentice “comes out of his/her time” with any certifications, it definitely shows what type of initiative one has, and especially during weak economic conditions, it could be the one thing that furthers continued employment.

What does Labor Day mean?

Okay, this is not going to be about the history of labor (though that would be a great subject to overview), and it’s not going to be about the Hallmark-er-ization of holidays (a rant that isn’t suitable for this medium). In fact, it’s about the mark of time that Labor Day has become for the US calendar. September = school.

Over the last three years, I have been attending “day school” for the apprenticeship, which means going to school for 8 hours every two weeks without fail, barring a handful of holidays that happened to land on my school day. No summer vacation to speak of, and a winter break that meant we went a month instead of two weeks between classes. (And that was always a bummer because it meant that much more time to forget everything we learned in class, and thus a more difficult time preparing for the next test.)
After these three grueling years of “day school” we finally get a summer break, and with said break, it means Labor Day (and all its symbolic time marking capacity) is upon us in full force. School once again starts the day after Labor Day. For me, that’s literally the day after Labor Day. I have been assigned Tuesday evenings for my first class in night school, that being Power Quality. We’re apparently using the same text book that we studied during book 5 for Power Quality, which is a very good text. I’m looking forward to delving in a little deeper, and getting a better understanding of all the nuances that occur in the power systems that degrade our energy consumption. It’s back to electrons, harmonics, semi-conductors and sine waves. Yipee!
Additionally, this year is the beginning of a new responsibility for me. At the end of book 5 all 3rd year apprentices were given the chance to “run for candidacy”. The elected position of 4th year representative for the Appeals Board becomes open every year as the current seat holder graduates to fill the 5th year position as a voting member. I made the decision to run, wrote a letter addressing my fellow classmates, and ultimately was chosen to fulfill this duty. I am excited and proud to take part in our organization in a way that offers my time, giving back to a massive structure that has thus far given me so much already.

Rites of Passage

Two Fridays ago, I attended my second-to-last class for “day school”. That means I took my very last test, #60. What a relief!! After school was over, I went with a couple other apprentices down the road to celebrate by throwing back a couple of brewskies. It’s nice to know that all these other 3rd year apprentices have made it this far. It’s really quite an accomplishment. Every two weeks we’ve gone to the school and taken a written test before each session (almost every single session). Then we’ve proceeded to sit [sit!!] through 8 hours of listening, watching slides, and hearing stories. For some people, it’s torture. The knowledge is great, when you get it. But the sitting! We’re just not accustomed to be in one spot for such a long period of time. After all, we like to move; that is why most of us chose this profession as opposed to “office manager”, right?

Now my class has only one session left to attend. August 21st. I’m sure every student in Brown Friday has that day marked on their calendars. Even though we’re still apprentices, we theoretically have the knowledge of 5 years worth of apprenticeship book training. From what I understand, the JATC of Local 26 was one of the first schools to implement this “day school” program, whereby the first three years are devoted to teaching and learning the traditional curriculum of Books 1-5. It’s really great because by the 4th year, we can really begin concentrating on becoming an A-Journeyman. We’ve got enough book learning to basically comprehend most of the electrical systems we come across, (and if we don’t, we at least have some kind of text book to use as a reference) and yet there’s that fine line that delineates us from everyone else — lack of experience. It’s humbling. And that’s a good place to sit, in my opinion.
The best way that I can describe how this feels goes something like this: there will always be someone more knowledgeable than me, and this is a person I want to learn from; there will always be someone less knowledgeable than me, and this is a person I want to learn from. In fact, some of the best things that I have learned about the trade have come from watching or working near a lesser-qualified electrician. When you make a mistake because you don’t know any better, you just don’t understand why it happened, how it happened, or how not to make it happen again. But when you watch a mistake happen and you know exactly how it got to be, it’s a much more memorable experience.
Three cheers to the end of day school! Three more to the beginning of night classes!
PS. I’m still terribly excited for our fourth year bump in income.