The Apprentice Survival Guide


United Trades Exclusive
The Apprentice Survival Guide: Introduction

By Tim Daly

The apprenticeship is a time for learning, as well as a time for proving yourself and making your mark. My apprenticeship was a four year program at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Kittery Maine. There were over one hundred apprentices in our class and twenty-five of them, including me, were training to be pipefitters.

Unlike many apprenticeships today, ours was conducted entirely at the navy yard. There were teachers contracted from a college for our academic courses, graduate apprentices who had been promoted to instructors teaching us trade theory, and a pipe shop full of journeymen, workers, and other apprentices to help with On the Job Training (OJT).


Throughout the course of an apprenticeship, the typical apprentice does a lot of learning. The interesting thing to ponder here is that every apprentice doesn’t learn the same things, nor do they have to.

About half of the people in my class were like me in that we had only been out of high school a short time. There were others who were already in their mid-thirties and hadn’t been in a school-type environment in a long time. Still others had been to, and in some cases, graduated college. While we were all in the same place at the same time, we had all travelled wildly different roads to get there.

Having been only twenty years old, and two years removed from high school, going to the classroom wasn’t as tough for me as it was for some of the older guys. A lot of what I needed to learn most was not just pipefitting trade theory, but basic industrial or blue collar trade theory.

When I went to work at the shipyard all I knew was there were adjustable wrenches and wrenches that weren’t adjustable, I considered anything to do with pipes that had a turning handle to be a faucet. Valves were things that lived under the hood of a car.

By far, the most important lessons to learn were how to get along and fit in with such a large group of people with such varied personalities.

A note about learning from the veterans: Many tasks that you encounter will have more than one way to do them, and you will see that different methods work for different people. However, the way the lead mechanic on that job wants it done, is generally the right way that day. Feel free to question him on why he does it that way, and to let him know another way that you know how to do it. But when all is said and done, he is the lead, and his decision (provided it is not unsafe) should be abided by.

Fitting In

You will find that many of your co-workers are what you might call gruff. Others want you to believe that they’re gruff, and still others are just plain bullies. Then you’ll come across people that are neat freaks, religious zealots, or for lack of a better term, nincompoops.

Some of the guys will be incredibly book smart, and not be able to tell their left from their right. Others won’t be able to read at a high school level, and yet are able measure out and make a perfect bend in a pipe the first time, every time.

There is a niche in the organization for every one of these people, but it’s up to each one to find that niche and carve it out. The key for you (the newbie) is to find yours, accept each one of theirs, and understand how they all mix.

You may come across two people in a crew who are completely different from one another, may not even particularly like one another, but they’ll defend each other like brothers to an outsider. Your mission is to not be the outsider any longer than necessary.

There is one element to this that is more important than any other. To really fit in, you must be genuine. A work gang will smell a fraud, and won’t put up with it. They will work with you because they have to, but they will not trust you, and may very well make you feel unwelcome, because if you’re not being straight with them, you’re going to be unwelcome.

Proving Yourself

The apprenticeship is not the old west. You don’t need to prove your bravery by quick-draw gun battles or fights in the street.

As an apprentice, you’ve got to prove yourself as an employee. You’ve got to show that you can—and will—get to the job site on time, and be ready to go to work when you get there. You’ve got to be willing to take on all tasks associated with the job, no matter how dirty or how menial.

You’re going to be asked to carry the tools—a lot. You’ll be asked to unload trucks, work outside of your trade, and do job site housekeeping a lot more than the veterans. You’ll go a long way towards proving yourself if you learn to anticipate these situations, and get to work on them before you’re asked.

When the foreman shows up at the job site, don’t be the one sitting around looking bored and doing nothing. There is always some small thing to be done to further the job.

There is a lot of harmless joking around that goes on, and you’ll be tested—often—to see how much you can put up with. The key here is to roll with the flow, but don’t allow yourself to become a victim, and don’t pile on when your fellow apprentices are having their turn in the barrel. All kidding aside, you should expect to be treated with the dignity and respect that every person deserves.

A Little About Mentors And Being Mentored

As an apprentice, you will go through periods—some short and some long—where you are working with the same mechanic or mentor every day. There are a few lines that need to be kept to, and sometimes they are not that easy to define.

You and your mentor do not have to be friends outside of work. You do need to try to get along while you’re at work, and more of the burden to ensuring that you do get along is going to fall on you. You may love sports and he loathes them, or you’re a republican and he’s a democrat, you may like to yuck it up all day while he wants peace and quiet.

Here in Connecticut we have huge debates between New England sports teams and New York sports teams, and it’s not uncommon to be stuck with someone from the other side (Damn Yankees). Being friends at work always makes it easier, and being friends outside of work is okay too, but as I stated above; it’s not necessary.

In the truck or at the jobsite, if there’s music to be played, it should be mutually acceptable, or you and your mentor should take turns. But again, as an apprentice, you should allow your turns to be shorter and less often than his.

You are under no obligation to buy your mentor anything, nor should you be made you feel that you are. He’s making more money than you and can buy his own lunch, or coffee, or whatever it is he feels the need for. Conversely, he is under no obligation to buy you anything either, nor should you expect it.

If he occasionally offers to buy you a cup of coffee or a soda it’s okay to accept, but it is equally okay to politely say “no” if you so choose. Do not allow yourself to come to expect a mentor to supply you with anything not directly related to the job. If there is ever a strain in your working relationship, such expectations will just complicate it even more.

You’re going to meet a lot of people over the next few years, and there’s something to be learned from every one of them. Take the good with the bad and the bad with the good, don’t get too excited about successes or too upset about failures, and don’t let praise go to your head, or chastisement bring you down.

And remember, when your apprenticeship is complete, you will have a marketable skill, and you won’t have a mountain of debt from student loans.

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