I just got off the phone with a retired "sheet metal mechanic," as he called himself. He wanted to send in a letter to the editor about his experiences in metal fabricating, and I'm not sure we'll have enough room to include all of the points he covered in our 10-minute phone call.
This was his main point, however: You can bust your butt to be a good employee, but companies "will toss you aside when they are done with you." After making that statement, he went on to describe how he worked a 1 p.m.-to-9 p.m. shift for one shop, often working into the early morning, for 27 straight days. After putting together that long streak of consecutive days worked, he was laid off several weeks later. On the way out, the owner of the company told him his contributions were appreciated, and he replied, "You have a funny way of showing it."
He's retired now after ripping up the back of his right hand installing an HVAC unit on another job. Even after a couple of surgeries to repair the tendon damage, he never regained the dexterity needed to work efficiently in high-paced fabrication shops.
I told him how frustrating those tales sound, realizing that it is probably more important for me to be listening rather than trying to find some sort of silver lining in the stories. This guy had worked in the sheet metal business for 40 years and had earned the right to be heard.
After hanging up, I began to think about the future careers of my kids and, frankly, my own. It's going to be a constant battle to maintain updated skills, and you really can't count on anyone but yourself to push you along that path.
Look at the current unemployment situation. Many politicians believe that more manufacturing jobs can help to remove thousands from the unemployment lines. Reality suggests otherwise. Many of the unemployed simply don't have the technical skills to step in and fill current and future job openings.
I think about my own father, who saw his own career opportunities dry up in the 1980s in Louisiana when the state enforced right-to-work laws. He couldn't take just any nonunion pipefitting job because he would run afoul of his union and put 20 years' worth of retirement benefits at risk. He couldn't get any union pipefitting jobs either because they dried up faster than a spilled glass of water on a Louisiana summer day. With no desire to pursue union jobs in places like Illinois or Alaska, he collected unemployment and worked odd jobs for about three years before landing a job working with insulators at one of the petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River.
Honestly, my dad was unprepared for life to throw him such a curve ball, and the idea of going back to school to learn a new skill was overwhelming. When people criticize the unemployed for not taking the steps necessary to get retrained and find a new job, I wince. Believe me, going back to school in your 40s is not an easy thing. One Spanish class I took recently at a local community college provided me with a newfound respect for the nontraditional student taking a full course load while rubbing elbows with kids who think they deserve a $35,000-a-year job just because they have a diploma.
In reality, you need to be prepared to make time to update your skills and to keep tabs on the employers around you. You are in a union; it's a one-person union, and you are in charge of benefits negotiations, job retention, and skills development. If you fall behind in any of those areas, you have no one to blame but your union leader—you.
Of course, many people aren't vigilant about positioning themselves for their next career opportunity, particularly if they are currently in good work environments. If their employers provide a comfortable workspace, reward them fairly, and keep everyone updated on the state of the business, they likely don't feel threatened about their work futures.
But what happens if the company closes tomorrow because of a tragedy, such as a fire? What if new management shows up one day and says everyone has to interview for their current positions? What if you sustain an injury that prevents you from doing your job at the level you once did? You've got to be ready for the worst-case scenario. It's the type of insurance you need that you can't buy from a salesperson.