I began my apprenticeship in 1981 under my father in-law in the same manner that he had for his uncle in 1940- old school! I watched patiently while he did all the work. When he needed a tool or a part, I got it for him. I could see that he was in no hurry to give up even the smallest portion of the job, especially to me! I was inexperienced, his son in-law, I could only cause him to become anxious. Besides, his customers were paying for his workmanship, not mine. For a while I bit my upper lip, assuming that very soon he would be giving me some additional responsibility.
After several months I became very anxious myself. I spoke up about how I felt, explaining that him and I did not have to follow in the footsteps of him and his uncle, that we could move the process along a little quicker. That by learning to do portions of the job myself I could begin earning money for his company and my apprenticeship wouldn’t be such a burden on him. He became visibly uncomfortable with the thought, pressing his lips together tightly as his eyes bulged, realizing he was entering into previously un-chartered waters, uncertain he wanted to be there while at the same time understanding that he already was.
There has always been a certain amount of respect an Apprentice Plumber was expected to pay the Master; certainly questioning his training method crossed some invisible line that had been drawn the very moment outhouses were moved to locations inside the home. I was convincing enough that the following week Irv bought me five brand new hand tools, put them in an old cardboard shoebox, double wrapping it shut with a thick elastic band. Many may think this was a substandard gesture, but to me it represented a radical change in perspective, one that would eventually see my father in-law surrender bigger parts of the job than I ever thought possible. My old school boss had learned to delegate- sweet!
From that point on my apprenticeship moved along incredibly well. Because it was a family run business, I was part of all the functions including management. Irv soon realized that it was nice having me around, not only for my young, strong back, but as a sounding board too. We discussed jobs past and present, and talked about future jobs and how we would do them, how long they would take, and what materials we would use. We discussed strategies and we made plans. By including me in the planning stage I felt more a part of the business and my enthusiasm soared!
I cleaned and organized the company van making it easier to work out of. Irv didn't mind, by delegating certain responsibilities to me, it freed up more time for him to do the more skilled work I was not yet experienced in. Every morning he would tell me our plans for the day and I would remind him of them later on when he would forget. He had begun surrendering more responsibility without even knowing it, and I knew he was beginning to like it. I felt useful and he had a new purpose.
Without realizing it, Irv was doing an incredible job leading. His stories of past plumbing conquests stimulated me to demand high performance from myself. I worked my tail off, seizing the opportunity to achieve results each and every day. Irv loved it; he had a 23 year old apprentice who was willing to contribute ideas and use his brain, and on a regular basis too! We had become a modern day work team: two men, one experienced and one new to the trade, enjoying and conquering the many challenges each day brought our way.
Just when Irv and I had found our work grooves, his doctor discovered a tumor in his colon. It would have to be removed. Irv and I talked about it in plumbing terms; an obstruction in a section of pipe that had to removed- that was all.
For a 64 year-old man, Irv was in incredible shape. He frequently admitted plumbing was not just his job; that it was his hobby too. Under his heavily-worn, dark blue "Dickie" work uniform he was a finely-tuned working machine that had hung miles of pipe, set thousands of fixtures, and did it all like a man on a mission.
After the surgery, I was forced to work alone while Irv began recuperating at home. We realized then how fortunate we both were that Irv had been so accepting of the new phenomena of delegating, and that I had had the opportunity to learn at a much more advanced pace than the old school methods we were initially strapped to.
From that point on, each morning when I arrived at the house I received a list of service calls from my mother in-law. I would then go up to Irv's bedroom to discuss each job with him and he would give me some advice that always seemed to come in handy. If I had a problem, I would go back to the house and consult with Irv. It was as if Irv was on the jobs with me. I felt his presence, and using his tools I attempted to carry out his mission. At the end of the day I would meet with Irv and he would monitor my progress, essentially still participating in the management function of controlling.
Irv succumbed to cancer and his plumbing company closed soon after his passing. Working with him had been one of the best experiences of my life. In addition to learning a trade and beginning to understand the functions of small business management, I developed a deep respect for people like my father in-law, those who are committed to working hard to achieve high levels of success.
I reopened my father in-law's business in 1988 and have been in business for myself ever since. The management skills I was first exposed to working with Irv remain important functions in my business today. Irv had unselfishly surrendered portions of his job in order to allow me the opportunity to learn a trade. He took a risk, abandoning his old school approach for a modern day one that required him to delegate. Because Irv had remained flexible, he and I experienced uncommon success, even if only for a brief time.