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Hard Luck As A Hard Hat:
How I Learned I Preferred White Collar Work

by Craig Harrison
October 20, 2002
edition of the
California Job Journal

Over the years I've held many jobs. Few have been ideal fits, yet from each I learned things about myself, my temperament and what I do best. One summer job in particular showed me I was better suited to white-collar work.

While in college I took a summer job at an Emeryville factory that built and sold large power generators for heavy industry. Each generator was housed in a giant container. My first day on the job I checked in, put my overalls and earplugs, and began walking across the expansive plant to report to my supervisor. On the way I passed a container the size of a boxcar. At just the moment I passed it a large explosion occurred, followed by a huge plume of smoke blasting out of its exhaust pipe toward me. I immediately screamed and ran for cover, convinced the entire plant was about to erupt. Of course the other employees laughed and hooted and from that day on I was referred to as Boom! It turns out this sequence of sound and smoke was common whenever a generator was fired up. I heard it (the explosion, and the appellation Boom) the rest of the summer.

Later that first week I was asked if I could operate a forklift. "Sure" I told them. After all, how hard could it be? I was asked to load stacks of wood at one end of the plant onto the yellow Caterpillar forklift, and carry them out the gate, across the train tracks and over to a truck across the street. Simple enough!

The first few loads went fine. I was feeling cocky. Then as I was approaching the tracks with my next load I suddenly heard a loud train's whistle. Wow, this train sounded close. I hadn't realized these tracks were still in use. I panicked and accidentally hit the wrong lever and suddenly my load was deposited on the train track. Oh Brother! Now what was I to do. I jumped off the forklift and tried to load these planks onto the forks, to no avail. I tried kicking them but only managed to collapse the stack of plywood. I got back on the forklift as the engine was bearing down on me and tried to push the wood across the tracks with the forklift's teeth. The planks fractured and now I was envisioning being flattened by a freight train. Luckily the engineer was able to stop the engine in time. Stopping his laughter was considerably harder. Soon I realized I had an audience as co-workers from across the plant came to marvel at my mess. Now I had two nicknames, Boom and Choo-Choo.

Surviving into my second week I soon asked to be given different duties. They asked me what skills I had. I said "I can drive." They assigned me to drive their long flatbed truck around the East Bay picking up and dropping off various parts. Finally I was in my element, driving the freeways and frontage roads while making my rounds. Imagine my embarrassment when, on my first day's run, after scouring the East Bay making pickups and deliveries all afternoon, I ran out of gas a mile from home base. I called in and explained how I was stranded. Of course they were incredulous. "Impossible!" They scoffed. But I insisted my flatbed truck was out of gas they sent out a co-worker with a can of gas to get me back. When he arrived he looked at the gauge, looked at me and started to laugh. That was when I learned that large vehicles such as this truck often have dual gas tanks. One tankwas empty; the other completely full. As for me, I was full of embarrassment.

By summer job's end I had vowed to recommit myself to my studies so as to have options upon graduation.

A Fool and His Tool Are Hopefully Parted

Recently, 20 years later, I volunteered on a Habitat for Humanity worksite to help build a series of homes. Dedicated Habitat staff instruct and oversee a bevy of volunteers who come for a day, a week or a month to lend a hand in building affordable housing for others. This day I arrived eager to make a difference. "We need two folks to measure and cut some aluminum siding for gutters?" "Here's one!" I called out enthusiastically. Soon a friend joined me as we were given instructions. "Here's the aluminum, here's your tape measure, and here are the dimensions. The saw is over there. Mark your pieces and make your cuts." It seemed simple enough.

Jim is a project manager with a state agency by day. Myself, I've been decidedly white collar since my aforementioned factory days. We made our measurements, donned our goggles and gloves and ambled over to the unattended radial arm saw. We decide one would hold the piece and the other would make the cuts. Jim held the first piece of aluminum and I turned on the saw and began to lower the blade. Suddenly sparks flew and metal melted as the blade his the aluminum. The sound alone was enough to make one shriek. The saw stuck, the aluminum instantaneously became mangled and disfigured. It seemed as though all work ceased as eyes all converged on us, each wincing from the sights and sounds of ruined aluminum.

The crew boss came running over to save his saw. We slumped from humiliation. How embarrassing. The rest of the afternoon we retired to the inside of the houses to hang closet doors, a decidedly safer endeavor for all concerned. Yep, 20 years later I was still a hazard around equipment. Give me back my pencil and mouse pad and I'll be just fine.

Each job can be a learning experience. From your first days of after-school and summer jobs, you are learning what you do well, what you enjoy and what you abhor. Your goal is to identify the nexus of your passion, your strengths and the work world's needs. That intersection is your sweet spot for success. May you find yours!

© Copyright 2002 by Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Professional speaker Craig Harrison finally identified his nexus. As the principal of his own communication and customer service company he shows others how communication, leadership and customer service can be fun and easy.

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