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Skilled Trades: A Dying Breed

Updated on October 31, 2009

Creative Power

Devil's Playground

They are up to their elbows in black oil and grease, where the dust in the air chokes at your throat, the heat in summer can dehydrate a person in minutes, and the cold of winter renders your hands useless; and just for a challenge your playing with lethal voltages of electricity or massive machinery that can crush bone into dust. This isn’t the Outer Limits; it is the playground of an industrial maintenance technician, more commonly known as an electrician or millwright. What kinds of people find a calling in such an environment? A dwindling group of people, collectively referred to as skilled trades, find a challenge and drive from this type of work. The nomenclature of skilled trades comes as a designation of personnel who have successfully completed both a formal educational course curriculum, as well as a predetermined number of on the job training hours. This group hails from all walks of life, but is bonded together by the camaraderie, self-preservation, and the payoffs from satisfaction of accomplishment under adverse conditions that this type of work affords daily, and the ability to leave work at work everyday.

Maintenance personnel by nature become such a close group, in their individual plants, that even family and social communications would have a hard time rivaling. The work environment itself breeds openness between the groups’ members usually due to its intensity and pressure. Each individual feeds off the others for support and anxiety release. No subject is taboo, and no secrets concealed between these people. Everything is put on the table and discussed, yelled about, agreed or disagreed, and resolved or not; but everyone disperses knowing where every other member stands. Nothing is left to speculation. Every individual in the gang, even if they are tolerating a bad day will reach down a little deeper to help others see a job through to completion. Sociability between all fellow employees may not always be the best, but overall the camaraderie between everyone overshadows personal differences. The fact that everyone there is working under difficult conditions and usually a deadline drives this group of people to work hand in hand with someone they may not even speak to outside of the workplace. Underneath all of the social, managerial, and business problems, the thread that weaves this group together is the common desire to get their hands dirty at some physical or mental type of work, mixed with a little stress and danger and leaving at the end of the day with all their fingers and toes still intact.

One of the most important elements that make this possible is a collective desire for self-preservation. Not in the literal definition, but in a physical sense. The challenge for this group of people is working at a job where there is an ever-present danger factor, not unlike mountain-climbers or skydivers. This fear factor keeps everyone alert and cognizant at all times. Trust resides as the single most important thread in the fabric of a maintenance gang. Every day, your life, or the life of a co-worker may depend on you being on your toes and constantly aware of your surroundings. This trust flourishes as the integral part of the physical self-preservation shared by everyone in this profession. A good feeling comes from working with people that have your well being as well as their own in mind at all times. This factor reinforces the degree of camaraderie amongst one another and weaves the fabric of each gang even closer. So what is the payoff for working this type of job?

The payoff comes from the unified satisfaction of a job done well, safely, and in a timely fashion. Maintenance employees all moan and groan about the petty little calls that they get day in and day out from production personnel who usually do not want to do their job that day, or just do not care about their job period. Skilled trades’ employees live for the big jobs that mean getting really dirty and working long hours, and always with someone over their back screaming, “How long. I have to have this machine.” These are the challenges that evoke the best in this group of people. These people thrive on the satisfaction of bringing back to life what seems to be a terminal case. They live by the motto: We have worked so long with so little, that we can now fix anything with nothing. This basic concept congeals all people in this line of work together. The other, and perhaps most important payoff from this type of work, is that at the end of the day when the dirt washes off, so does the pressure and the stress. This job doesn’t require you to take it home with you. Tomorrow is another day, and if they don’t get it done tomorrow, there is always the next day. If the job is real important, you work as long as the law allows and either someone else comes in to relieve you, or you pick up where you left off the day before. Every day provides these people with the 8, 12, or 16-hour fix to get them through to the next day.

People on the outside scoff at those who work as industrial maintenance technicians, even the production employees in their respective plants, but if you don’t have inside you the necessary desire to do this type of work you will never understand where the drive comes from. Having worked 14 years in this field, in three different mills, I can say that everywhere I’ve been, and every maintenance person I’ve talked to, all agree that this is the life they chose. Time and time again, a gang will drag themselves back to the shop ready to collapse from exhaustion, only to have another call come in for another major breakdown. You can see the tired glances flash around the table as every one of them slowly rise and throw their tool belts over their shoulders and head back out the door. For this is the camaraderie they all share, and the self-preservation that they are not going to let someone go out there by themselves because they have to be just as tired as you are and someone has to watch their back. If things are on your side, you can pull off another save, and look at one another and say, “Good job, no blood.” For the bottom line is every one of them wouldn’t be anywhere else but there, in the devil’s playground.



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