How Do YOU Lead Your Apprentices and Helpers?

I want to ask you, which style of leading helpers and apprentice lineman is better, autocratic or democratic?  Autocratic is where the person in charge makes all the decisions and directs his workers to follow. Democratic is where the person in charge gets everyone together to make sure everyone understands what the job is and how they are going to accomplish it. The argument has been going on for years, which style works the best.  Seems like the old timers think autocratic style is the best and the newer lineman think that democratic is better. When I started back in the late 70’s there was only one kind of leadership style and that was autocratic, you did not have to guess where you stood in the pecking order when you were at work. Today, I have had to change to a more democratic type of leadership because that is where the industry has gone. I am going to talk about both styles and which one I think is better.

The yard I started work at as an apprentice was a medium size yard. The main building was a large metal building warehouse where the trucks were stored at night. There was an attached brick office that had a place for customers to make payments up front and a few offices for employees. My Foreman had an office and only the foreman himself and the lineman were allowed to hang out in that office. The helpers and apprentices had a small wooden table back in the warehouse where we sat around until time to go to work. When the clock hit 7am, which was the time we started you were expected to immediately get out of your seat and start working on the trucks.  Going to take a shit or eating food needed to be finished up before time to go to work.

The trucks were the sole responsibility of the helpers and apprentices. Water coolers were dumped and refilled with water and ice every morning, all material on the trucks needed to be looked at to be sure there was an adequate stuff for the day, cutouts, Lightning arrestors,  squeezons, hand-coils of wire had better be in adequate supply. All leaves, trash or any old materials needed to be thrown away. DOT inspections and inspection of the bucket trucks needed to be completed. Believe me, if you didn’t look after these details on a daily basis you were going to catch shit.

The lineman would then come out and tell us what we needed to load, 90% of the time we carried poles so we had to hook up the pole trailer to carry them. We also loaded transformers, wire or any other hardware we needed. We were never told where we were headed or what the job was.

Once the foreman was ready and came out of the front we were ready to go. The apprentices were only allowed to drive the line truck, Lineman drove and rode in the buckets. The exact  instructions from the foreman was “You follow this bucket truck.” On the way to the jobsite we were not allowed to stop at any stores so if you did not have your lunch packed for the day you would just have to starve on lunch break. We were never shown the job print even when we got to the jobsite. Orders were barked out on what to do to get the job going.

We only got 30 minutes for lunch but if we skipped the morning allowed break, 15 minutes we usually would take 45 minutes. The Lineman would all eat and then sleep. The apprentices were the alarm clock for the Lineman when lunch was over we would wake them up. One time myself and another apprentice played a joke on them and did not wake them up, we let them sleep for over one hour. Needless to say when they finally woke up on their own the Foreman was furious with our little joke, we never tried that little trick again.

At the end of the day we were never allowed to come into the yard early unless we had to unload old material. My foreman used to say “too many people watching” in the baseyard. So we had just enough time to drive in, unload old material and drop the pole trailer. One thing I used to hate was dropping that trailer on a daily basis. We used the pole trailer on a daily basis and to me it was a waste of effort to hook it up every morning and then drop it in the afternoon. I used to ask, “ why do we have to drop this trailer every day, we will  need to hook it up in the morning again” My Foreman calmly said, “well if we get a bad transformer tonight we don’t want to have to waste time dropping the trailer to be able to use the line truck.”   We also always kept a spare 25 and a 10 KVA transformer on the line truck at night so if we used one during the day we had to replace them before going home.  We were also responsible for backing the bucket trucks into the bay and downing the doors. The way it was planned there was only time to wash your hands and hit the gate out.

Every day was like the movie “Groundhog day.” Same thing day after day, week after week. Every step of our day was orchestrated out by the lineman and if you forgot something or dared to buck the system the punishment was swift and painful. Lineman would get in your face and want to find out what your problem was.

We were told on a daily basis that we would never make lineman. One of the favorite sayings of my foreman was “you look like a monkey fuckin a football” no matter what task I did it always drew this response.

Every now and then the big Line Supervisor would come out to see us. It was best to keep off his radar. If he got a bad report about you, he was quick to put you back in line and you better listen, low performers were not tolerated and let go immediately.

I do want to point out that I quickly learned that even though we went through all this on a daily basis it was not personal. We used to drink beer in the parking lot almost every day after work and the linemen were almost friendly. The other thing I realized is that these guys were willing to teach me what they knew; the least I could do was make their life easier while working. They were firm but fair.

Fast forward until today and the democratic style of leadership that the industry has moved towards. We now hold short meetings every morning where everyone is present including the apprentices and helpers. Every job is explained about where we are going, what we will be doing, what we need to load. Everyone is given the opportunity to ask questions about the jobs. It is pretty normal now that everyone stops at the store in the morning, unless the crew is working in a remote place. There is much more emphasis placed on documenting the performance of helpers and apprentices. Low performers a take a much longer time to be let go. Each helper or apprentice has to be respected even if he hasn’t earned it yet.

With the democratic style it almost seems like you have to ask someone’s permission to teach them something. It’s all about talking to everyone to make sure everybody is OK with what is going on with the job.

In my opinion Democratic style also leads to not knowing your role on the crew and thinking you have more say-so than you do, which is dangerous. It’s the “too many sergeants and not enough privates” One person on the crew needs to be in charge. The thing about Linework is there are many ways to do the same job and “opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.” When you think you have a say, it causes problems when you don’t get your way. This leads to the guy that has been here for a couple of years thinking they know it all. Any seasoned lineman knows it takes at least 10 to 15 years before you really have a grasp of your job. 

 I saw an Instagram video of 2 apprentices that had harnesses on, the had some ropes going back to an old pole that had been pulled, it was a smaller pole and the apprentices were running dragging that pole out of the woods. There was some laughter going on and no doubt the video was being taken by the lineman on the crew. My first reaction was that the lineman might be in trouble, what happens if those apprentices complain they are being degraded? Which could very well happen today. You see that thought was my democratic leadership style that I have to use today.  But my mind instantly went back to my days as an apprentice where my Lineman made us do many things that were way worse than dragging some old pole. I never thought I was being degraded and it brought back some great memories of what was normal back in the autocratic days was. Those days were tough but we always had fun.

In my book autocratic worked better, they was no wondering what someone meant when they gave you an order to do something. If you could make it through the program it was something to be proud of. Being a Lineman is a dangerous job, following what you are told could save your life. Some of the things I was made to do back in the day and hated, I would still teach to someone today because they worked.  I felt like I earned my Journeyman Lineman slot. I had plenty of help along the way, but I had to run the gauntlet everyday with the guys I came up under. They responded to my hard work by teaching me their knowledge.  I was willing to put up with the BS to make it through. It was a rite of passage that meant something.

I am pretty sure we will never get back to the autocratic style of teaching helpers and apprentice lineman but in my book it worked.

So what do you think works best, autocratic or democratic?  I want to know what you think. Leave me some comments.

Too many admirals and not enough sailors.

When I was a brand new pre-apprentice there were certain things you didn’t do, 1. Never, ever put your tools in the Lineman’s bin on the line truck. 2. The grunts didn’t eat lunch with the linemen. The linemen and the foreman ate separately from the grunts, apprentices and the truck driver. 3. Grunts rode in the line truck, not in any of the pickups. 4. Grunts couldn’t go up on the dock, we had to be at the line truck ready to work in the morning. On the dock the Linemen and foremen occupied the right side of the dock and the apprentices the left. We were tested every day on materials, tools and equipment. The lineman would say “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.” I remember those days clearly, being yelled at, constantly scrutinized, told I probably wouldn’t make it… It took 4-years of OJT, 3-years of night school and plenty of OT, but I topped out and made Journeyman. Guess what, those guys watched out for me, pulled me out of the way when I was in-the-bight, taught me a great trade. Some people might say all the crap I took was hazing but I’ll tell you what it really was, and we could use a hell of a lot more of it, its called the rights of passage. Proving yourself, that you’re worth the effort.