The beginning of each summer is the usual routine of new interns who come in from their schools and work to gain experience in the workplace. I like this time of year. I like the look on their faces when I show them what I do and how unfortunately, they too will have to get their hands dirty—just like me. To be clear, however, and to be fair and true to who I am; I can say that I am an easy one to be paired with in this situation. At least, I hope so.
My position as an operating engineer has given me some interesting lessons. I have grown from a young man into who I am now, which, unfortunately, is not as young as I used to be. My body does not do the same tricks anymore and oftentimes, I can be heard from a great distance; bellowing like the hollow cry of an old lion while trying to get up from the couch. My body has endured years of strain. My back is less than kind and my knees and ankles have frequent disputes with me. But ah, come the start of summer, I find the fountain of youth is upon me when the interns come my way.
The typical jobs for them in the machine rooms are painting and cleaning and some light plumbing work. Maybe an opportunity will arise for them to use tools or see how the ventilation systems work in a commercial building.
I teach them what I know but more (and this is the part that I love the most) I ask them to teach me about them. I ask them to tell me about their life and about their interests. I want to know what they see in this world. What challenges do they face? Or, what hopes do they have?
The interesting part here is the slight phase of discomfort. In many cases, it almost seems as if no one ever asks them about this. I let them talk. I let them teach me. I let them show me what they know and what they like. I appreciate this and in many ways, this allows me a chance to live vicariously through their hopes and dreams.
Most often, they begin with this somewhat awkward or uncomfortable expression; as if the look on their face is to explain, “Why is an adult talking to me?”
I laugh about this.
I tell the interns about the work I do and the work I wished I did when I was their age. We talk about hope. We talk about the fun stuff too because not everything needs to be serious.
Plus, this is the taste of the working world. This is their first real view of what someone goes through, day in and day out, to pay bills and keep a roof over their heads.
My best suggestion is to find out what you really want to do for a living because you might be doing this for a long time. So, be happy.
I’ve heard people grumble and complain and ask, “Why are you even talking to them about this stuff?” And to be fair, I wanted to think about this question before answering.
Initially, part of the reason I speak with the interns is because I am usually paired up with them for some light training purposes. Also, a little conversation makes for an easier day.
However, and most importantly, I admit to me seeing them as the person I was or could’ve been, —and additionally, I see them as a depiction of our future. I see them as mostly unchallenged and at the verge of new life; they have so much to see. They have so much to experience. The interns have very little understanding about the life ahead of them. Most are about to enter college. Most are on their way towards figuring out who or what they want to be.
They come from different times. They come from a generation of technology. They come from different cultures, which, for example; they come with participation awards for placing last in competitions. I can say that as an adult; or that as a person in the working world or in the corporate structures—the only reward I have seen for coming in last in the workplace is termination with the possibilities to collect unemployment.
The interns come from a place where their challenges are different. I mean sure, they’ve had deadlines at school but have they ever had a deadline that if missed, it could cost them their home and their livelihood?
“I don’t believe anyone has the right to yell at me,” is something I was told by one of the interns.
In fairness, this person was yelled at a few times.
Was it right?
For the record, let’s say the mistakes were frustrating to say the least,
I asked about this. I asked “Did the teachers yell at you in school?”
“My Mom would complain if they did.”
“Does your Mom work here?”
The young person laughed and answered, “No.”
“Then your Mom can’t help you here.”
I come with news for the interns. I understand the validation of participation. I understand the need for fair and equal treatment. I also understand the competition of an interview. I understand what happens to those who produce and to those who do not. To be trained in any way other than this is counter-productive. See what happens in a financial position and you make a costly mistake. Let a boss down to the point where he is enraged and see what happens if Mom calls to complain.
I understand that life in the working world is not fair. I also understand the need for HR purposes and educational groups to help support proper treatment in the workplace. However, none of this changes the fact that work is work. And this is why they call it “Work.” This is the exertion of effort; this is to produce, to make, to build or maintain, or to accomplish something on a daily basis.
It amazes me:
To see them as they are and yet, they are equally starry-eyed and hopeful. They have dreams. They have hopes and ideas. They have the angst to go out into the world and grab what they can to get what they want.
I never tell anyone what they should do with their life. I never tell anybody about what they want to do or how. I mostly listen.
I ask and I inquire.
It’s amazing to me that although the question seems so obvious and simple, no one really asks, What makes you happy?
What kind of work do you love to do?
What’s interesting to you?
Or, even simpler; is this what you want to do with your life?
There is a survey that comes at the end of the internship. Some of the interns are office workers who I’ve escorted through the machine rooms of a commercial office building. Some are those who work alongside me in the machine room. Some of them are interested in my coaching and mental health initiatives. Some are just young kids who appreciate being treated as an adult. Plus, I feed them very well and make sure their lunches are taken care of.
However, the touching part about this is I have been told that my name has come up in several different surveys. In fact, some of the old summer interns have come to visit me. And I see them with a tear in my eye. I see them chasing their dreams and understanding their work. I see them growing and building and to me, quite honestly, this is the most rewarding feeling I have ever had in my adult career.
Did I ever tell you about the time I was the subject in someone’s thesis?
This was an intern that was paired with me. In contrast to my recovery work, I suppose this is something that fuels the reasons why I keep doing what I do.
This is why I stay in the fight. This is why as I type to you, I am thinking about a young man who passed away at a very young age. He died before becoming who he chose to be. And who knows, maybe someone should have asked, “What makes you happy?” ….. maybe no one asked him. There’s no data on this for me. However, the one thing I know about work and the entryway to making a living is that this time is truly valuable. (And so were you, C.)
Did I know what I wanted to do when I was 17?
No. But then again, life wasn’t real when I was 17.
Did I know what I wanted to do at 19?
No. Life was just beginning.
How about 21?
The one thing age teaches us is what happens when we miss out on an opportunity. I learned from my lessons. And I get it—these kids think they know everything.
But maybe they do.
Maybe they know more than me, which is fine.
I suppose I just want to see them happy.
I want to see them to dare.
I want to see them to dream.
I want to see them to ante up because otherwise—
The aftermath is incredible.
Sleep well, C.
Sorry I missed you.