Starting out. I started working as an electrical trainee in August, 1970. My goal at the time was to build an outstanding work record, including good work habits and to cultivate friends and acquaintances who could and were willing to help me in my quest to be become an apprentice as soon as possible. The main reasons that I wanted to be properly trained as an electrician were that they made a good wage, I enjoyed working with my hands, and electrical theory is fascinating.  I knew that I would enjoy doing this type if work and, most of all, I needed an occupation that would give me an opportunity travel.

We’re from the Hall. We do it all. My first job was at the U.S. Department of Commerce on a renovation of the entire building. As a greenhorn, I knew absolutely nothing about the trade. I was assigned to knock holes in the existing walls for new electrical conduit and other demolition work. Naturally, I was disappointed because I associated punching holes in the wall with laborer’s work.  I was soon to learn that all work associated with electrical work is electrical work. The old saying was “We’re from the Hall We do it all”.

Lending a helping hand. I remember my fascination with how the journeymen were bending pieces of conduit so that it could be installed along the wall line and then go through the hole that I had made and then connect to a piece of existing conduit.  I kept telling myself that I had to learn how to bend conduit well enough to do what they were doing.  On the first day when I finished knocking holes in the wall in one large room, I moved over to the next room. Later in the morning everything seemed to get quiet, so I went back to the first room to see what was happening, but found no one. The conduit benders were lying on the floor, so I decided that this was my opportunity to experiment with a piece of conduit. Later I found out that the guys had gone to coffee break but forgot to tell me. Upon their returning from break, I was caught trying to bend a piece of conduit.  Instead of being angry, as I thought they might be, I was offered assistance and instruction on conduit bending. After being on the job for a few weeks, I knew most of the journeymen and apprentices. They were all friendly and offered their assistance whenever it was needed. The older journeymen were very helpful and had plenty of construction war stories to tell.

False first impressions. The old cliché that “first impressions are lasting impressions” has proven false for me on several occasions. One well remembered example was with an older man named Ed.  When I first met him I thought that he was the worst Red Neck that I had ever met in my entire lifetime. He had the bad habit of calling me “boy”, and I didn’t like it. Then Ed was reassigned to another job site. My feelings were good riddance.  A few months later, when I reported for work one morning, Ed was back on the job. I remember thinking, of all the things that could happen to me, why this? I soon realized that worse could happen, I was assigned to work with Ed. What a rotten day, I thought.

As we went to our assigned work area he appeared to be somewhat friendly as he tried to make small talk. I didn’t want to hear it. We finished a small project that the other journeyman and I had been working one, then we moved to another part of the building to start another project, but before starting he asked me if I knew how read blue prints. My answer was no, so he said in a nice manner, you are going to start learning today. Things went well for a few hours before I started to have mixed emotions about whether Ed was a good guy or a bad guy. Then he used that special word “boy” again, which automatically destroyed all good feeling I was beginning to have.

Bare in mind that I am still trying to get into the Apprenticeship Program and don’t need to create too much of a problem on this job. The only effective recourse that I could think of at the time was to sarcastically call him “old man”.  I used this approach a few days before it produced fruit. Then one day after I threw out the “old man” phrase as a counter to his calling me “boy”, Ed stopped all work and explained that when he used the term boy he was referring to “Apprentice Boy”, a term used over the years for apprentices, and that he had no intent of degrading me be calling me boy. He also offered an apology for not explaining his intent earlier.

After that conversation he was careful about the way he used the word and I started to pay attention to the overall treatment that I was receiving from him. I realized that he was sincere about teaching me many tricks of the trade and we talked about many aspects of our individual lives. I learned to trust, respect, and care a great deal for Ed.  Our relationship grew to a point where we were friends and it didn’t matter if he called me “boy”.

They helped me develop as an apprentice. Bob was the first journeyman that I worked with. Bob loved to take time out and draw diagrams on the wall in his efforts to teach me electrical theory. He loved hunting and fishing in his spare time and talked about it extensively on the job. Jimmy was a smart electrician who said some things to me that I didn’t care for at the time, but deep down inside I knew that I shouldn’t get too upset with him because he was telling the truth. His criticism did have a positive effect. Charlie had enough faith to give me my first supervisory position. When I was an apprentice working under Charlie’s supervision, he would raise hell if you didn’t come to work on time. But, if you worked hard and completed what he considered a day’s work, he didn’t have a problem with you leaving early. There are many more people who played a significant part in my development as an apprentice, but I don’t have the time or space to talk about all of them.

Apprentices seldom laid off.  Traditionally the industry will have a downturn every five or six years.  These slow periods haven’t had a serious negative impact on the membership because they usually affect certain areas of the country at a time, while other areas are not affected at all. Journeymen, when laid off can travel to other Local Union jurisdictions and get work.  This gives the employer the option of laying him off and keeping the apprentice so his training will not be interrupted. The apprentice doesn’t have the option of traveling to another jurisdiction until training is completed. During the early 1970s, when I was doing my apprenticeship, apprentices were seldom laid off even in times when work in the industry was slow. Today, however, (1992) the situation has changed slightly, in that our fifth-year apprentices are making almost as much as a journeyman and are laid off before other apprentices during tight times.

Finding your niche. On jobs where there are several apprentices, they get to know each other and come together in groups that share the same common interests. Some times an apprentice will find his niche with the journeyman that he is working for. During break or lunch they meet at some predetermined place and share stories of the night before, the weekend, school work, or whatever topic that comes up. Plans are made to come together again after work of apprentice school.

Apprentices, just like G.I.’s. Apprentices are, in reality, unskilled workers in the earlier stage of their training. They are usually straight out of high school and feel that they don’t have to take orders from anyone. Young trainees and GI’s have the same basic attitude about life, they know it all. In the Services, GI’s spend a few months in basic training, which has a very beneficial effect on discipline. In the electrical trade, apprentices are taught discipline by being forced to do the menial jobs such as getting coffee for the crew, unloading materials, cleaning the work area and shop, digging trenches, etc. As the apprentice progresses he will be allowed to play small part in actual hands on electrical work, such as bending conduit, hanging light fixtures, etc. with the assistance of journeyman that he is assigned to work with. Still further along in his training, he will be allowed to do some small jobs with indirect supervision from a journeyman until he is able to accept and do some assignments alone.

Accepting assignments. Another rule that might come under the heading of discipline is acceptance of assignments. Apprentices are usually assigned to work with a journeyman and receives all of his assignments from that person. The supervisors don’t want to convey assignments through the apprentice because the apprentice’s knowledge of the trade is so limited. He probably won’t understand the complete assignment. The journeyman also has a responsibility to teach on-the-job and to insure that the apprentice is taught safe work habits.

Doing “good time”.  Doing “good time” is when there is an abundance of work and many jobs will have overtime work on a regular basis. Apprentices are like most people when it comes to making money and will work all of the overtime that the company allows. However, if the apprentice is allowed to skip school for extra work, his grades likely will start to fall, and then failure could be the end result. Some apprentices might be smart enough to deal with this type of situation, but others don’t have the ability.

Not allowed to quit jobs. Apprentices are not given the latitude to quit a job. If there is a severe problem, then he can call the Apprenticeship Director and ask him to intervene. When I was in training, there were several jobs that I would have quit, if I were allowed to do so. I know many apprentices who had problems working under this rule. Sometimes the pressure gets so great for they, they quit anyway. The penalty for quitting was a month’s set-back in the next pay raise and to sit out of work for two weeks. Quitting more jobs will only crease the severity of the penalty until you are eventually kicked out of the apprenticeship program. Most of us dealt with problem jobs by constantly reminding ourselves that we only had to work for the company for six months, and then you were transferred. The penalty for getting fired is about the same as quitting except the rules allow for some margin of error or a conflict in personalities when you are fired once. The second time, it’s investigated more closely to determine who is at fault. Discipline is meted accordingly after the investigation.

The works our forefathers started.  In the electrical industry, technology constantly changes. Different applications and safety measures must be carried out. We need the best-qualified journeymen to install this clean, efficient and dangerous source of energy in whatever way will benefit mankind. Some applications require extreme discipline for correct and safe installation. Our apprentices should receive the best possible training in all phases of the industry including discipline so they are qualified to carry out the requirements of technology and carry on the works our forefathers started.


Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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