Fingerprints Part 11 — The Groundwork

This is the eleventh part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
—Thomas A. Edison

I showed up at the State Employment Office for a nine o’clock appointment to take the battery of tests that was required for my apprenticeship application. I took the three-hour written test first and breezed right through it, finishing first among the group of ten. I still had some collegiate fire when it came to taking a test and the general nature of the questions was not a problem. I secretly wished that my college tests had been this easy.

After an hour’s break for lunch we took the mechanical aptitude portion of the exam and this is where I had the most fun. We were given a pegboard with two-dozen dowel rods nested in holes. The dowels were two-inches long and painted white on one half and red on the other.

The timed challenge involved turning the dowels end-for-end, one at a time, so that all the white ends were inverted to display the red ends. We used our right hands the first time and our left hands the second time. The third time we were allowed to use both hands.

Again, I blew through this challenge and finished first. I was driven to succeed at this exam. I thought that it would somehow make up for my failure at college.

The next test was even more fun. We were each handed a board that had a vertical rod with small washers stacked on it and a grid work of small screws—six rows of four—standing in holes spaced an inch apart. The first challenge was to select a washer from the stack, slide it up and over the end of the rod and then, with the opposite hand, pick up a screw and put it thru the washer and place them back in the same hole on the grid. We also alternated hands and did it a second time. I had no trouble with the test, but some of the members of my group had screws and washers all over the table and floor.

When the test was complete we sat and waited for our scores to be tabulated and then meet with a counselor to get our results. My name was called and I went into a small cubicle and sat across from a man who was in his mid-forties and dressed in a white shirt, a black tie and black pants. In his shirt pocket, a plastic pocket protector with assorted ballpoint pens completed his ensemble. He was dressed for a funeral and I hoped that it wasn’t mine.

He looked up from my open file. “I see here that you want to be an electrician.”

“Yes, sir. That is my plan.”

“Why do you want to do that? You have scored very high in our tests, you can be anything you want to be.”

This was great news. “Well, I want to be an electrician.”

“I see that you have had two years of college. You could go back to school and become an Electrical Engineer.”

“But I don’t want to be an engineer, I want to be an electrician.”

“I want you to understand the point that I am trying to get across to you. You-have-the-ability-to-do-whatever-you-make-your-mind-up-to do-if-you-discipline-yourself-and-apply-your-talents.”

“Thanks, but at this point in my life I need to make money to support a wife and a child who is on the way. Completing an apprenticeship and becoming a Journeyman Electrician is the best shot I have at that. I can’t afford to work full-time, go to school and provide for a family.”

“Here is a copy of your scores for your application.” He handed me an envelope. “Good luck to you in the future and don’t give up hope on getting an education. Don’t set your aim too low in life, you might just hit it.”

“Thank you, sir. I will do my best.”

It was raining when I walked out of the State building and I hurried to my car where I sat and thought about the conversation that had just taken place. Was I settling for too little, too soon in life? Would this next career choice lead to another dead-end job? Was I a complete screw-up at college and, therefore, at life?

I was like a shark at this point, constantly in motion, not resting, searching for my next prey in the form of a job. I equated motion and energy with a path to success. If I was in a state of unrest that meant that I was moving towards the next phase of my future, the next level of a successful life. The truth was that I was moving closer to The Edge, and to becoming one of those people who went over it.

“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”
—Jerry Chin

The last part of my application process consisted of going to the Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee (JATC) and taking two written math tests, and if my scores were high enough, I would be invited to return for a personal interview with the members of the Apprenticeship Committee. The committee was composed of three representatives from the contractor’s group, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), and three members of IBEW Local 728. The seventh member was the Apprenticeship Director, a former journeyman electrician.

I was scheduled to take my exams at 6:30 in the evening and it was during another typical South Florida downpour of rain. By the time I got from my car to the building my clothes were drenched. Inside, the temperature was in the low 60s, apparently the Director, MW, liked the temperature to be on the cool side.

A secretary handed me the first test and I when I sat down alone in a vacant office I began to shiver. The cold air on my wet clothes took my mind off my nervous energy and I focused my attention on the pages before me.

The first test was a general math quiz and I was doing well right off the bat. There were multiplication and division problems mixed in with decimal-to-fraction conversions (and vice-a-versa)

I finished in 20 minutes and they gave me the next test. This was a quiz that covered basic algebra. I was off and running with this one and finished in fifteen minutes. I went back and double-checked my answers. They all looked good, so I turned in that test and waited for the verdict.

Five minutes later the Director, MW, came out of his office to meet me. He was holding my tests in his left hand and shaking my hand with his right. “I want to compliment you on your scores. You got 100% on both tests.”

“Thank you.”

“We are not used to seeing that level of skill in mathematics around here. I see that you had some time in college.”

“Yes, sir, but it didn’t work out.”

“Do you think that you would might want to go back to school some day, do something different from being an electrician?”

“No, sir. I have a family to provide for. This is what I want to do.”

“Well, son, you just might get that chance. Come back here at 7:30 pm a week from today for an interview with the committee. We have 4 spaces open in the class that starts in September.”

“Yes, sir! I’ll see you then, sir.”

The next week was a blur, both at home and at work. I was nervous, excited, anxious and on edge as I anticipated the upcoming interview. At the time of my application an unusual event was unfolding, one that I was unaware of: an additional class of first-year apprentices had been added, for a total of two classes of 20 students. This was a first and it was a reflection of the need to provide manpower for the building boom that was starting in Broward County at this time.

Prior to 1968 a person had to be a member of the FBI to get into an apprenticeship class. In this case, FBI stands for: Father, Brother, In-law, in other words, you had to be connected by blood or by marriage. In my case I wasn’t connected to anyone, anywhere. I was just a schmuck off the street who tested well, had a desire to learn, and could lift heavy things.

I passed my interview with flying colors and signed the indentureship papers. For the next four years my education would be paid for by my labor, at agreed upon wages, with increases every six months if my grades were satisfactory. I was expected to attend class twice a week, study and pass exams when given, show up to work every day, AND keep track of the number of hours that I spent on various tasks as outlined in our little yellow Hours Worked book.

We needed a total of 8,000 work hours that were broken down into various categories to demonstrate that we were receiving a broad exposure to all facets of the trade. No one wanted to get stuck digging ditches or running coffee orders for four years. The little yellow book was our way around that and also proof to Uncle Sam that we were fulfilling our part of the obligation of having a 2S Student Deferment. We were considered an essential civilian asset for the war effort in Viet Nam.

Some financial planning was necessary at this point because I was taking a significant pay cut. I was going from earning $3.50/hour as a laborer foreman to the princely sum of $2.04/hour as a first year apprentice. Our financial relief came in the form of an offer from my father. He kept me busy doing work at the plumbing supply warehouse on weekends and occasionally picking up an odd job here and there for additional funds.

I worked forty hours a week as an apprentice, attended apprenticeship classes for three hours a night for two nights a week, and worked 10-hour days on the weekend. We would not have been able to survive my apprenticeship without this help from my Dad. I worked these hours for three years until my regular wages were inline with our meager living expenses.

I was home only to eat, sleep and go back to work. It was tough on our marriage and our family life, which was non-existent. I had a rhythm going and did not stop to consider where it was leading me. All I knew was that we were paying our bills, had food to eat, a roof over our heads, and that was good enough.

Fingerprints will continue with Part 12.

  10 comments for “Fingerprints Part 11 — The Groundwork

  1. January 22, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    “And when it rains on your parade,
    look up rather than down.
    Without the rain,
    there would be no rainbow.”
    —Jerry Chin


  2. September 4, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    Your story is written so well Allan, you draw your readers in. I wonder how many of us have asked these very same questions, not just once but often! I cannot wait for the next chapter.


    • September 4, 2013 at 6:58 AM

      Thank you for your comments on this post. It seems that many of us have asked ourselves those questions at various times in our lives.

      Sent from my iPhone


  3. September 2, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    Great write, as ever, Allan. You have a way of engaging your readers… 🙂


    • September 2, 2013 at 9:16 AM

      Thank you, Sue. Connecting with others via the written word is a new experience for me.


      • September 2, 2013 at 4:29 PM

        That is part of this tale that I find exhilarating and endearing. I eagerly await your next installment.


      • September 2, 2013 at 5:01 PM

        Stay tuned, it will be about day one in the trade.

        Sent from my iPhone


  4. September 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    “Was I settling for too little, too soon in life? Would this next career choice lead to another dead-end job? Was I a complete screw-up [at college and, therefore,] at life?”
    I wonder how many people ask themselves those very questions. I know I have. This series is exceptionally written, honest and engaging.


    • September 2, 2013 at 9:10 AM

      Thank you, Stephanie. The answers to those questions are as individual as the person asking them. We all have to find out for ourselves and I hope that my experience can help someone else accelerate their journey to finding their answers.


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