A Test of Mettle

By Robert E. Martin


The Texas plant hired several young men at the beginning of the summer. After that first week, they fired all of them and kept me. The lesson I learned from this experience was: It always pays to exceed expectations when working for a new employer—it is the quickest way to job security. Indeed, it is a good idea to make a habit of exceeding expectations. There is a downside, however. This practice will not endear you to your coworkers and you will experience some pushback from them.

A classic problem in the labor market is sorting workers for qualifications and capabilities. This is a problem all companies have, for an application and interview does not always show how the new worker will perform. You don’t want to retain unsatisfactory employees. The steel plant used a clever method to screen labor, immediately giving new employees difficult jobs and observing performance. I saw different varieties of this technique in my career, and learned more about it through readings in economics. I passed the test of mettle.

Bob Martin, college man

The next week, they moved me around to several different stations in the plant process where I worked under journeyman supervisors. After that, I worked with the foreman. He took me under his wing and taught me various jobs. Then, he assigned me to driving a forklift. I spent the rest of the summer on the forklift. I enjoyed working at this plant. Hard work never bothered me. What I would run afoul of was the union shop.

It was a union plant. Being just a summer worker, there was no attempt to recruit me. I did not know the union culture. One day, I heard a lunch conversation about a union meeting to take place the following night. Working with the foreman that afternoon, I mentioned the meeting and asked what it was about. I assumed the foreman was in the union, but he was not. The union was organizing a strike. I had no idea! The foreman immediately went to speak to the union stewards. Naïve, young Bob had stepped into it—now I was a snitch and there was no way to explain what had happened. My life became a living hell.

The union steward especially despised me, razzing me about being a “college boy” in front of others and isolating me. Then it became more than a psychological war, it got dangerous. One of my co-workers was a big fellow but known to be a slacker, shirking his share of the work. He and I were assigned to use a crane to unload coils of steel rod from a freight car. I worked in the car, placing the hook from the crane into these steel coils that weighed a couple of thousand pounds and were about five feet in diameter. The other fellow ran the crane, lowering the hook for me to attach, which would then lift the roll and move it out onto the floor for the fork lift to deliver. But the hook would come crashing down into that car. The job of hooking up these coils was not random; they could come rolling on top of you if not removed in order.

On another occasion I was running the fork lift, which could carry two of the coils of rod back to the bull block loading area where they were kept. It should have been a smooth operation, but the crane operator did his best to make it more difficult since he dumped the coils on the ground. I didn’t comment, just did my best.

The foreman came into view and saw what was happening. He got Pissed Off!He chewed the guy out, and I learned that my coworker should “…know this works best by lowering those coils right onto the fork lift!” The crane operator said that I took too long to get the coils hooked up, and he was wasting time waiting for me. He tried to make me look bad. But I learned that normally it was a three-person job.

There was another incident at the rail head. I was in the car, working, which meant a lot of bending over. The safety procedure was to holler, “Ready to pull that!” when you were standing up, ready to observe and catch the big steel hook as it descended from overhead, swinging, guided by another worker. But several times as I stood up the hook was swinging into the car, and I could have been severely hurt. It was a deliberate attempt by the man to put me in jeopardy. I realized I was in danger and stood up and leaned over the edge of the car. There was a worker bragging to the crane operator about what he had done to me! I just looked at him. The men stopped laughing and then they became uncomfortable. I had no more trouble from that kid.

The summer was a living hell, not from the hard work, which I enjoyed, but because my co-workers would put me in harm’s way if they could. I had learned that in addition to the job itself, it was important to learn the workplace culture as fast as possible.

When I left at the end of the summer, the plant manager made a point of telling me I could work for them “anytime you want to!” I thanked him and said I was off to graduate school.


© Robert E. Marin, PhD 2018, all rights reserved. Used by permission.

Robert E. Martin, PhD, is the author of several books about economics, including The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality. The story “Test of Mettle” is excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, My American Life: Minimizing Regrets, privately published by Perfect Memoirs. Bob is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky.




About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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