March 21, 1992. This is the day I was initiated into the pipe trades. I started my career in late May of 1991 and was told at the time that I had to work for six months before I was eligible to be initiated. From that moment on being sworn into Local 469 became an overwhelming passion. It was an obsession. I had been told that before one is initiated, the apprenticeship can exit an apprentice for any reason so I was bound and determined to get initiated at the first opportunity.
I worked hard. I was enthusiastic. I did everything I was directed to do with a smile on my face and I never missed a day of work. I showed up fifteen minutes early every day. I had a mission; to be a journeyman. That was the goal, but I had a why. Every worthy mission has a why. It is the fuel that feeds the engine. It is what kept me in the sandy parking lot at one of my early jobs changing out the U-joints on my AMC Ambassador long after the last journeyman had gone home and the sun had crept past the horizon.
What was it that made me so determined? I threw the opportunity when I was eighteen years old. I had begun the apprenticeship and decided it wasn’t for me. Seven years later, I had my why; three children who needed a secure income and healthcare. We weren’t even married at the time. We were flying by the seat of the pants, but it was time to get serious.
I poured everything I had into being a success. I went above and beyond on each and every task, in fact one evaluator commented that I was over-enthusiastic. Time came for us to sign up to get initiated and we were told that the cost was five-hundred dollars, payable half before initiation and half upon graduation. Only one thing stood in my way; money. I started out making $6.60 an hour. That was about three dollars over minimum wage. Two hundred-sixty dollars a week. I wasn’t quite the high-rolling pipe fitter then. Out of those wages we paid food, rent, utilities, gas; you know the deal.
Anyone with a grasp of basic math can figure out that this young family didn’t have much left after depositing the paycheck. Most of the apprentices in my class were younger (I was 25) and single. I couldn’t figure out why some of them didn’t get initiated at the first opportunity. Priorities, I guess. Lucky for me, the apprenticeship allowed us to make payments on the $250. At that time I don’t think I had ever held that much money in my hands at one time. For the next ten weeks, I went to the office and gave $25. Giving that money was a sacrifice, but with my wife’s budgeting, we did it, together. I did not do it by myself. All success I have been allowed to achieve is shared by Nadine. In this business the spouse definitely has to be on board during the good times, more so in the lean times.
Nowadays, I don’t think there is a fee for initiation. I think the Apprentice wages are now a little higher relative to living expenses. I’m not assuming that it’s easy. I’m sure it’s not. I went through it, my father went through it, and every man and woman who has strapped it on has gone through it. The five-hundred dollars it cost to become a proud member of this organization was a small price to pay for the rewards that I have reaped over these thirty years.
I have had a great career, sure there have been challenging times, but the good far outweighs the bad. I always wondered what brought people back to work long after retirement. Part of it is the money, but you get a sense that you belong to something that is greater than you are alone. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. If you are young and just beginning, or maybe you’re in the middle of your career wondering if there is more to this. Look around at any other line of work. See what benefits they have. Ask what kind of education was needed to get into the career.
This career will never be perfect and there are always going to be problems. The challenges we face today may be different than the challenges we faced thirty years ago, but they help us grow and become stronger, if we choose to learn and adapt.
Remember, if you’re struggling in the early years of your career, we all struggled. We all sat the bench, we all hit the road. I hope this note finds you with much success and much success in the future.