Reality and Sanity

June 3, 2007

The Two-Decade Odyssey

Filed under: General Nonsense, Self-Absorbtive Tendencies — Paul @ 10:36 am

This is a long read; I suggest grabbing a cup of your favorite beverage before starting.

In 1988 I was working for Domino’s Pizza as a driver/assistant manager, and that’s when I first came to know what real hatred of a job is like. I liked the people I worked with in the store, but I hated upper management, I hated that I wasn’t making far more than the minimum wage (if I didn’t drive that night; the minimum back then was $3.25). I hated that no one was helping me advance (Kevin was a good manager, but he ran the store purely by instinct, an unteachable skill.)

Domino’s at the time is like all chain-store fast-growing and fast-paced restaurants: there was plenty of opportunity to rise because the turnover/burnout/manager-screwing ratio was high. Even Kevin, who broke all of our store’s records, got bounced, and within four months proved what a mistake the company made by founding the first of what would be five restaurants owned wholly by him.

Before that happened, I was already on my way out. A 30-second commercial showing an introductory seminar on how to buy and own businesses. The ad posited the tagline: “Live your dreams! Do what you want by doing what you love!” My ears perked up. I thought about how most of my dreams were crushed my senior year of high school and the few years after, leaving me with the sole ambition of simply making enough money to live comfortably…which to me was having my own apartment, a paid-for car, and no debt. My goals were so modest so that they would be easy to reach; I suffered from depression back then, still do. Back then I didn’t have it under control.

That ad gripped my attention and wouldn’t let go. I felt that since the introductory seminar was free, what did I have to lose except for a few hours of time, since I had nothing better to do anyway? No girlfriend, no hobbies except music listening and TV watching. I had become a hermit inside my living quarters. Maybe this would bring a ray of hope to a life utterly ruled by disappointment.

I attended the seminar, where in two hours the presenter touched on all the topics covered by the program he sold. The business method was on leveraged buyouts (which made me uneasy) and it cost $700.

On my just-barely-over minimum wage assistant manager’s money, attending the 2-day workshop was out of the question. (Domino’s Pizza purposely underpaid assistants as an incentive for them to move quickly to manager. Let me tell you, it is simply a joy trying to get drivers that make more than you to respect you.) But I did take away the commercial tagline and used it as a motivator to find a new career. At the time, I had no idea it would take me nearly twenty years to finally realize that goal.

I remembered my old dream of being a photographer in high school, and started to pursue that by attending The School of Communication Arts in Minneapolis, MN, with the goal of getting a Francesco Scavullo Cosmopolitan Magazine Cover job. Who wouldn’t want free reign to select which lovely models to shoot, what $5000 dress they would wear, the exact make-up and hair styling? Especially in the late 1980s, when every Cosmo cover model seemed to have one of two poses. All Scavullo had to do was pick which foot was in front; otherwise it was face forward, hands on hips with fingers delicately arched as one, thumbs facing backward.

But dream got steamrolled when I found how much trouble it is to make it in that field, and how so many few actually break through. Then there’s so many legal hassles concerning issues like copyrights, release forms. It takes someone with extraordinary ability to manage all aspects of a successful photography business so much so that you need an agent…or a wife with business acumen, which I didn’t have. On top of that, you still have to find glam models willing to pose for little or no money. Glamour Photography turned out far beyond my ability (and desire) to deal with, so I moved on to the other unglam side of the business: high-end photolab work.

I found a good job at the place that had processed my film and made contact prints. Why I applied there was because of a backlit display they had made to sell that service; it featured the Customer Service staff and their years of service, most of which came in the 13-18 year range. Only one was under ten, and she was at nine years. That display evoked stability, which after the quick-hire-quick-fire environment of Domino’s Pizza seemed to be a beacon in the darkness.

Once I got over my rookie mistakes, the job was good…for the first few years. That’s when the owner decided he was getting too old to run the operation and started to cede control to his oldest son. The father and son also allowed someone to reassert command as the plant manager who had done a dismal job when he’d previously held the position. Apparently father and son failed to recall why he had been demoted before. I soon found out why first hand.

I had several battles over customer jobs with this plant manager, eventually losing all respect for his authority because of his unreasonable demands and feeble photolab skills. I crossed the tipping point when he actually lied to a customer about a embedded dust problem with his transparencies and expected me to bring forth a miracle and deliver the job perfectly clean. This happened in late 1997; by this time, the career wheels were already turning that would take me to another job.

Sensing that computer programs like Adobe Photoshop would soon overtake the photolab field, I enrolled at the Minnesota School of Business in the fall of 1997, seeking Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator skills. I earned A’s in those classes and proudly showed my report to Owner’s Son, thinking he would consider me since they were looking to expand the fledgling computer department. His response? After complementing me for doing a good job, he then waxed poetic about how “Adobe was a great company and made such great products.”

No mention of how my new skills (which I had obtained without any prompting or help from them, meaning they got virtually free access to them) could help the computer department in their shortage to meet the work demands. None.

I made the plans to finish school, then find another employer that allowed me to use those skills. I started to consider finding one before I finished school when the plant-manager-lying-to-the customer episode occurred. This consideration became an all-out drive and near-necessity on Black Tuesday in the fall of 1998: four people were laid off, one of them being nearly untouchable for 20 years.

After informing the quartet of their employment loss, Ownwer’s Son called a meeting to inform us who were left what had happened. I can still hear the B&W custom printing lead man quietly exclaiming “wwwwhhhhoooooaaaa!” when Mr. Untouchable’s name was mentioned as the fourth layoff. While we were reeling from this shock, Owner’s Son revealed the reason for my immediate need to find employment elsewhere, even though I survived the cut: the delivery drivers were no longer permitted to accumulate overtime.

Think about this: what if it takes longer then the time alloted to do the job? Are customers with firm deadlines (like a book, pamphlet or poster needing to be printed for a event promotion) going to miss said deadlines? In a world where missed deadlines cause the red-ink jars of added expenses to flow freely, jobs are lost when the ire and wrath of bean-counters hits the desk of upper management as a financial report. Companies stop using your services quickly if you fail to deliver in such an environment. The lead driver, noting the same concern I had, asked, “So what happens when we have a rush job that is due that day, and the time is after 3:30?”

Owner’s son replied as if his wife asked him if he wanted the butter dish at the dinner table: “If you don’t have time, bring it back and deliver it the next morning.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Could he really be that short-sighted?

Yes, he could.

I left in March 1999, to join a small business that also had a computer department, where I was promised to split my time between the photolab and the computer imaging department. Which I soon learned to be a flat-out lie. Once again, I had been disrespected and screwed by the Highest One In The Company.

I gritted my teeth through that experience long enough to finish school and find a graphic artist position laying out grocery ads that also had steady streams of images to color-adjust and manipulate. I thought I had found the motherlode, surfing a riding crest that showed nothing but promise and a long career. That tagline from a decade ago now firmly in my grasp: “Live your dreams! Do what you want by doing what you love!” Or so I thought.

What I saw instead was disdain from the new coworkers who almost immediately considered me scum. I saw rampant management incompetence and my first experience with office politics, negative of course. In short, my initial experiences showed me why Scott Adams is a millionaire for creating Dilbert.

A bit later, the storm subsided, allowing me to work relaxed. This period I recall as the gaunt quiet time; the first storm was over, but a new one was brewing that lasted nearly six years.

Slowly, the responsibilities given to me dealing with images were outsourced to another location in the company. Then I was passed over again and again for anything that would give more skills and training. Worse yet, the machines and software became more outdated, making the possibility of finding other jobs remote, since the skills I had weren’t up-to-date. My employer didn’t want to make any technology updates until a new contract was signed with the client we did the work for, since we worked on-site. Yes again, the spectre of short-sighted thinking. Why did they do this? So that if the account was lost, there would be fewer expenses. That attitude shows high confidence in your sales team.

Finally after five years of haggling and a series of one-year stave-offs, a new contract was in place, new machines and software purchased and we finally made it into the 21st century. That was short-lived, as the client, a large corporation themselves, bought out another large corporation and had to cut some of their retail operations to comply with the anti-trust laws so the U.S. Commerce Department would approve the deal. We served the retail operations sold off, so about a third of our work disappeared overnight, which made layoffs necessary in March 2006. This time, I didn’t make the cut, and I was relieved, because the treatment I had received had completely disillusioned me to any future there.

My disillusionment soon spread to encompass all types of print media, then all jobs in advertising and anything else dealing with computeres at as I found it impossible to land a new position even with an impeccable resume. So many others had my skills that HR directors treated me as a guttersnipe when I contacted them about open positions. Adding insult to injury, the Minnesota School of Business placement director treated me like a pariah when I returned there for help. She didn’t care that I was a past graduate. She didn’t care that I had compiled a 4.0 GPA and won the respect of every instructor that I took a class with. She didn’t care that the school president, her boss, immediately recognized me even thought we met only briefly eight years earlier. She told me the school wasn’t going to honor the lifetime agreement to refresh the skills I learned there.

That’s when I decided “Screw it.” I found some other crap jobs until I decided what the long-term plan was. At one crap job, I learned what it is like to be thought of as an unknowing idiot by people who weren’t even born when I entered the workforce. Another taught me to hate ISO 9000 because it is the ultimate micromanagement experience. Yet another showed me the definition of harassment–creating a hostile work environment. The tagline of “Live your dreams! Do what you want by doing what you love!” nearly evaporated completely as the negative experiences piled up.

I had been hearing for years that the trades were suffering: the workforce getting older, not many new people were coming in to replace the soon-to-be retired. I researched to find out if there was truth to this assessment. I discovered that this was indeed the truth, and enrolled in mig welding and blueprint reading classes. Welding is so short of people that companies are taking to tossing recruits from temp agencies against the wall to see who wears the velcro shirt. The American Welding Society predicts that 200,000 jobs will be available with no one to fill them. Someone with welding or machining skills from a good tech school can almost pick where they want to work. “That’s what I want,” I realized.

During the last three years of my graphic artist position, I developed a serious fetish for hardware stores and power tools. Welding would allow me to embrace that fetish while earning me a good solid income. So I started the classes with vigor, using up dozen of feet of flat bar two inches at a time to work on the fundamentals of making a good weld. I learned it so quickly that I had welds of such quality ready to show a prospective employer. I did just that, boxing and mailing samples of each weld type for their examination. That caught their attention, as they called me within a few days of the package’s arrival.

Seven weeks later, as of June 3rd, 2007, I cannot think of a job that I’ve ever held that I love more. I’m in a large workshop with my own area. My supervisor helps me when I need it, but allows me to work on my own with little supervision. There are no office politics to speak of (at least where I’m at. That does go on in the main office, but my position away from everything else acts as a soundproof, bulletproof buffer.) Sure there are some issues (like how the blueprints are drawn up–worthy of a separate post.) But those are minor.

I look forward every day to getting to work, and am disappointed when the workday is over. If the union would let me, I would skip the ten-minute breaks as I view them as an interruption to a roll. I also volunteer for overtime. The management probably thinks I have rocks in my head because of the zeal I bring to the job each day.

After a two-decade odyssey, I have the peace, serenity and job satisfaction I’ve been searching for all those years. I love it.


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