Randy Tucker: Lessons on the job

You see the signs everywhere, in cities, towns and even in just wide spots in the road. The “Help wanted” sign industry must be at an all time high. It seems that everyone is hiring, but there are few applicants.

Something just doesn’t fit.

On one side you hear employers lamenting the lack of qualified works, or even worse, the slack effort that many new hires show in the workplace. On the other end, you have cynical workers, trying to make a go of it in the “gig” community who are tired of long hours, low pay and no benefits.

In the modern era, the only thing separating many people from homelessness is luck. America is the only modern nation where bankruptcy awaits even a moderate illness. Without health insurance people are totally at the mercy of an out-of-control medical industry.

Does that have anything to do with the sudden increase in job availability? You be the judge.

We often hear older people recall how hard they worked as teenagers, and 20-somethings, how stiff the competition for high paying jobs was, and the strict demands that employers once made on their workers. No doubt, most of that is true, but some of it has been filtered through the prism of time, and wasn’t really that much different than the conditions the youngsters just entering the job market face today.

I’m sure you learned a few lessons about working hard on your walk in life. I can pinpoint a few key individuals who taught me the value of a dollar, and the expectations of a full day’s work.

That started with my dad on the farm, when picking up hay, moving pipe and building fence were all part of living at home. It may have preceded that a bit when I was in junior high school in California.

I earned $450 the last summer I moved lawns in 1971 at Mather Air Force base. That might not seem much now, but I charged $1.50 for small lawns, and $2.00 for average sized yards. That meant I mowed between 225 and 250 lawns that summer. I wore out my dad’s three horsepower, 22 inch mower that summer. He and mom never charged me for the wearing out of that mower, telling me decades later that they just enjoyed watching me working so hard five or six days a week on my lawn route.

Lawn mowing is a job for adults these days, you rarely see teenagers doing it.

As a teenager, I met the second influential person in my work place journey. Clifford Stickney was the head custodian at the old Pavillion School. It was already Wind River, at least the K-8 version of it in 1973 when I took a job on the summer grounds crew at $1.15 per hour.

One morning, Clifford told me to dig, and set a row of fencepost. There were about 40 posts in all, and Clifford had gone to Riverton for supplies just after I started.

I dutifully dug the 40 holes with a hand powered clamshell digger, tamped each post and had the job finished by 11:30 that morning.

As I sat on the tailgate of the school truck, Clifford drove around the corner. I jumped to my feet, trying to look busy.

“Don’t ever jump up when the boss comes around,” Clifford said in his low drawl, “He’ll think you’re slacking off.”

Clifford looked at the line of fence posts, walked up to a couple and tried to shake them to see how tight I’d tamped them and said,” I can see you were busy. These posts are tight, you did a good job, you didn’t have to jump up for me see you’ve been hard at work.”

Lesson learned.

Later that summer we moved the slides, swings, and monkey bars from the old Morton School that became Wind River High School to Pavillion, for a bigger elementary playground.

Taking everything apart was easy. We unbolted everything, stacked the metal bars and posts on a trailer and took them to the new spot to assembly.

We had several coffee cans full of nuts and bolts. I had a 7/16” inch wrench to put it all back together. I kept breaking bolts in half tightening them too hard.

Clifford repeatedly told me to back off on the pressure, but I still sheared off about one in four of the bolts.

We knocked off for lunch and I found a shady spot to eat.

When I returned to the playground equipment my wrench had been cut in half. Clifford took it to the workshop and used a grinder to cut it from about eight inches to just four.

“If you’re man enough to break bolts with a four-inch wrench, have at it,” he said.

Problem solved, I didn’t break any more bolts.

My final lesson came from a guy who walked a fine line between demanding and insane.

Loren Ricks didn’t believe in water for his workers, even if it was 102 degrees at the bottom of the pit we were digging in. He lightened up a few weeks later after he’d fired a dozen or so other guys on the job, and let us have an occasional drink.

My roommate Frank Schmidt and I survived his rigorous demands, and at $9 an hour in 1979, with 10 hours of overtime a week, you could see why. A couple of early 20-something grunts digging, tying iron, pouring concrete and welding under his scornful gaze had the Riverton Water Treatment Plant ahead of schedule, lining Loren’s pockets with a nice bonus for finishing early the following summer.

If he saw you toss anything less than a full shovel of dirt, you heard about it. If you put a half-inch too much dirt down before compacting it, he was all over us for that too.

Meticulousness in the rough world of dirt work and pouring concrete, the lesson was to always work to exacting standards, no matter how inexact the job might appear.

Which brings us back to the modern era, I didn’t learn any of these skills in school, they were all real life lessons taken on the job.

Too often the walking heads blame the school system for the failure (in their eyes) of the work ethic of an entire generation. Sometimes, the best education comes from hands on far from a classroom.

The present job shortage (or the purported shortage) isn’t the fault of your local school, it’s an ever changing societal problem that needs addressed by society as a whole.

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