14 October, 2007

Career blues pt. 1

I remember the day during my senior year of high school when my counselor pulled me aside and asked me this question. "So, have you given any thought to what you want to do after high school?" It was as if someone had reached out and smacked me in the face. I had given no thought to what I might do after high school. I can't explain why, but back then I lived in the "here and now" with no consideration given to my future. I looked at my counselor and said "I want to be a mechanic." There's days when I regret saying those words. Maybe at the time I didn't think I was capable of anything else. My grades would certainly not be good enough to get me into a university. Besides, I wasn't good at anything except playing drums and percussion.

I went on to tech school and learned the ins and outs of being an auto tech. I was well trained and enjoyed the shop classes. The other mandatory courses bored me to tears because they were nothing but an extension, and in some cases a repeat, of what I'd already done in high school. I never did get a diploma because I simply stopped attending a math class. I don't regret it. I got decent grades in my classes, but wasn't an outstanding student by any means. These days I understand why certain classes were included in the curriculum, but generally speaking the whole automotive program was lacking. The program was designed, of course, to train people like me to go out into the workplace ready to go at it. It didn't work out that way. The classes were excellent and I was a whiz at diagnosing all sorts of problems on cars. I loved the challenge and was hungry for every problem that could be thrown my way. I would diagnose problems, kick their ass and get the car going again. What I found when I actually got out into the real world woke me up in a hurry.

Bam! I landed my first mechanic's job a few months before I got out of tech school. Full of piss and vinegar, this hot shot mechanic was ready to take on everything that was driven, pushed or towed into the shop. What I got was a rude awakening. I had the skills and knowledge, but I had zero experience. I found out that shops can't afford to let a newbie mechanic run wild. I changed oil and tires then worked my way up (?) to exhaust and brakes. I had to pay my dues so to speak. This was when I started to realize that I wasn't prepared well for the real world. With rare exceptions, new mechanics will start out with menial tasks. That sucks. I was doing work that any person off the street could do with a little training. I thought my skills were being wasted. Being a cocky nineteen year old, I left that job after a few months. I went to a shop where a few of my former classmates were working. It was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made, but didn't realize it at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 after all, isn't it? I was blinded by a brand new shop filled with new equipment and the promise of good money. That job was total chaos. I had to do things that I wasn't trained to do and had to learn on the fly. I made mistakes. The shop manager finally realized that I was good at what I had been trained to do and I found myself doing alignments and air conditioning work. For a short time I was happy. Then I got fired. One of the untrained "shade tree" mechanics that worked there started a water pump job, went to lunch and never came back. Guess who got picked to finish the job? Thats right, me. I had never replaced a water pump. That sounds crazy considering I had two years of training at tech school and a few semesters of training in high school, but apparently my instructors never thought it necessary to teach us how to repair things like that. They didn't teach us simple things such as the necessity of using thread locker on fan clutch bolts. The fan came off the water pump that I installed and destroyed the radiator. Because of that I lost my job. What worried me most was going home and telling my father that I had been fired. I felt like a total failure.

At my first auto job the shop manager, Wally, was purposely giving me simple tasks. He wanted to see what I could do, and prevent me from making stupid mistakes such as I'd made with that water pump job. I should have swallowed my pride and went back to Wally to see if I could have my job back. I didn't. I was still a proud (and cocky) nineteen year old. What's a guy to do in that situation? I went back to the grocery store I had worked in while I attended tech school and begged my old boss for a job. Luckily he had a spot for me.

That grocery store job wasn't exactly what I had in mind for a career, but I was good at my job. My coworkers were mostly people I had worked with before so I fell right back into things. We were a family there and I was very happy when they welcomed me back into the fold. As an example of the qualities of my coworkers, I'll tell this short story. During my employment at the store, my father had died from cancer. I took a week off for the funeral to be with my family. Some of my coworkers came to the funeral to support me. None of them had ever met my father. When I returned to work, they all gave their condolences and presented me with a sympathy card which every person had signed. I'd signed cards like that for some of my coworkers, but never knew how much that act of kindness meant until I had been in their shoes. I miss those people. During my first year back at the grocery store my boss from my first auto job, Wally, called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd be interested in working for him again. I was uncomfortable talking to him because I had bailed out on him. Wally convinced me to have lunch with him and talk things over. I told him the whole story and expected him to politely retract his job offer because I had failed at being a mechanic. That wasn't the case, he was very understanding and I think that he might have had similar experiences in his younger days. He needed a mechanic and wanted me because I already knew the system and could be dropped right back into place without having to be retrained. I almost accepted his offer but, in my mind, I saw myself as a failure and was also sick of changing jobs. I politely declined his offer and stayed at the grocery store. I held all sorts of positions at that store, mostly as second shift manager. Not bad for a twenty year old, eh? The money was okay, but they worked me hard. I'd been there a bit less than four years when I realized the ship was sinking. The place was going under and people were bailing out left and right. I became angry. My last six months there, I had been working in the meat department and had just become an apprentice meat cutter. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I found something I was good at and could make a career out of. I wanted to ride it out until the last, but realized that I was going to need a new job, and fast. My sister came to my rescue. I'll pick the next phase up in part 2.