The how and why of becoming an unemployed bum

Today, August 9, was an anniversary for me.
The second one in two days.
For payroll purposes, a week for the last company I worked for full time ran from Sunday to Saturday. Because of that, yesterday was technically the second anniversary of my last day of employment there. However, the last day was proceeded by a spur of the moment two week vacation, so a gap existed between the last day worked and the last day employed.
My leaving was not retirement in the usual sense. There were no forms signed, no handshakes accompanied by good wishes, none of the fooforaw that often accompanies a last day in the work force. Instead, two years ago today, I went to the office on a Sunday evening and left a wad of keys, an ID card, and a much nicer than the first draft letter of resignation on the District Manager’s desk where he would see it first thing Monday morning. It was a better way of ending my employment than he or the company deserved.
I had worked for the company for over eleven years. I left the only job I ever truly loved to go to work there, and for the first five or so years I would say that things were at least decent if not particularly great. The company was a natural gas supplier, and I was hired to read meters and install water heaters. When not reading meters, meter readers did service work. Among other things, this included disconnecting and reconnecting gas service, and responding to possible gas leaks. Meter reading was considered a bottom of the rung position by some individuals in local management, and, for that reason, the meter readers never rated everything required to do the service part of the job. In some cases it was only irritating. In the case of not having everything that was needed to locate possible gas leaks it was stupid, if not criminal.
When I started writing this entry I had typed almost two full pages detailing some of the reasons for my change in attitude toward the company. (Which, for at least a year before I finally quit, I had come to hate with every fiber of my being) A lot of it was personal between myself and a certain supervisor and I erased it because it sounded too much like I was whining. Such is not the case – at least one other person was/is in the same situation. The supervisor in question was an equal opportunity would-be bully and jerk. Still…. It seems better to confine this little rant to what would turn out to be the last straw. Operator Qualification, or, simply OQ.
Every year, company employees whose work involved pipe wrenches and other tools were required to be tested for OQ. Those employees were divided into two departments, service and construction. For most of the years I worked there, the responsibilities of the two departments separated at the meter. Service was responsible for the actual meter and everything downstream, and construction was responsible for the everything upstream of the meter. For a long time the man responsible for the in-house testing had been a serviceman and recognized the distinction between the two departments. When he retired, his replacement – a former welder – did not. It was his feeling that everyone should test on all tasks regardless of whether or not their job responsibilities ever involved those tasks. Adding to the blurring of the lines between who did what was the fact that OQ, at least the way the company did it, had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not an individual was actually qualified to perform a given task.
It was, at best, a joke. A poor one to be sure, but a joke nonetheless.
Imagine taking a test on say, framing a house. The question: What steps are involved in framing a house? Answer: Cut the dimensional lumber to the right length, and nail it together.
Technically correct, but there are a lot of things missing in that answer. What tools are used, proper framing techniques, accepted standard dimensions for the rough openings for doors and windows, roof pitch…..the list is almost endless. And yet, by the standard of the company I worked for, the answer would have been acceptable because the test was never about the how, but rather, about the what. If you passed a multiple choice test on WHAT you were supposed to do, you were qualified for the task even if you had not a clue HOW to do it, or for that matter had even seen it done by someone else. It made the company (and the guy doing the testing) look good on paper because it made it look as though they had a highly trained workforce that could handle just about anything. The trouble, is that it was conceivable you could find yourself in a situation you knew little or nothing about and when things went south there would be a piece of paper somewhere saying the you were qualified to work on and fix the problem. So why dammit, didn’t you? Handing out bogus, unwarranted qualifications like candy on Halloween was bad enough. Where it really became infuriating was when a person who had performed his job competently for years, even decades, suddenly found himself barred from doing his job because of missing a question about something that was out of the range of the job he did each day. To go back to the house framing analogy, it was like a highly skilled framer being barred from doing his job because he missed a question on laying block, pouring concrete, or installing an electrical service. Yes, all of these tasks are involved in building a house, but it is possible to be a good framer, even an extraordinary one, and not not know how to do them. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, things like this actually happened while I was still there.
The last straw for me involved an instrument known as a flame ionization unit, or, more simply, an FI.
I didn’t have one. As a matter of fact, it is my recollection that there were only two in the district. Nobody carried one on their truck as standard equipment. During regular hours leak calls were normally handled by guys in the service department. If a FI was needed, a call would be made to the construction crew, who, unlike service, used FIs on a regular basis, and someone would come to assist. After hours and on weekends it was pretty much the same deal. NOBODY carried an FI on their truck. If one was needed a backup would have to be called.
We all carried another testing device known as a CGI. It had more value in outside calls because it could be used to isolate the location of underground leaks by inserting a metal or fiberglass rod into holes made by a tool known as a bar holer or, if the ground was soft enough, a probing rod. One or the other was absolutely essential to properly do outside leak calls, but, like so many things in the company, there weren’t enough to go around. I worked there several years before I had a bar holer and someone else did without theirs for it to happen. I eventually bought my own probing rod because the manager informed me the $60 cost was too much for the company to bear. For inside leak calls, a CGI was all but worthless. It was what you used before entering a building, but all it was good for was letting you know whether or not there was a dangerous level of gas. It was a lot like trying to do electrical troubleshooting with nothing but an ammeter.
Not too long before I ended my association with the company I was undergoing an oral training session (which, as an aside, caused me to invest in a digital voice recorder in case there were any more like it in the future. Both members of management present demonstrated a severe problem with short term memory when it involved things they had said just minutes before.) that got into a debate as to whether or not I, as a lowly meter reader, should have certain things I felt I needed but didn’t have, even though two others with the same responsibilities did. Somewhere in there, the District Manager made a statement that would have made a good story line in the comic strip Dilbert.
“We know you don’t have everything you need, but the company just won’t spend the money. What’s important is that you pass the tests.”
Translation: As long as it looks good on paper we really don’t give a damn whether or not you can actually perform the task even if you are thoroughly familiar with it.
The final straw occurred when I was told I could no longer do outside leak calls because I had admitted not knowing how to use a FI. If I had been an expert with one it would not have made one iota of difference in the way I responded to outside leak calls, because it still would have been necessary to call someone to bring it. And both the District Manager and Assistant Manager admitted that was the case. I have no doubt that two years later it is still the case. All I was allowed to have for leak calls was a CGI, a bar holer, a probing rod purchased at my own expense, and a bottle of leak check to spray on pipe joints.
At least three others who did leak calls shared my level of inexperience with a FI but somehow managed to escape being suspended from doing leak calls.
In summery, totally unwarranted and undeserved “qualifications” were approved, while at the same time people were being disqualified for tasks they had been performing with ever increasing levels of competency, aka experience, for years if not decades. This could not have possibly had anything to do with improving quality of service, because all too often the company was too cheap to furnish the tools needed to do a job the way their own operations manual said to do it. It is rather I think, a case of a handful of individuals basking in the glow of their own egos.
I was lucky, I was able to leave. I pity those who have had to stay. They really deserve better.


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