Classrooms are one thing, but make your apprentices show what they can do in the field.

It was Feb. 9, 1976, and I was a know-it-all 22-year-old working in my family’s heating business. What would make me the master of all I surveyed? I was fresh out of college, and I thought I knew everything about everything. Certainly, I thought I knew everything there was to being a technician in the heating business. At leastIthought so.

After all, I’d been a glorified apprentice on install jobs and service calls for a full year now, and a part-time helper while going to school since I was 17 and could legally drive a truck!

When were they going to let me work on my own? I didn’t want to be an apprentice for life. I was smart and motivated because I was an SOB (Son of the Boss) and I wanted my chance to earn my stripes.

As luck would have it, Feb. 9, 1976, was going to be my day to prove it. Unfortunately, I would have to pass the Test of Fire. The bad news is the person who would administer the test was Dick, my dad’s most senior installer. He had trained all the other top installers at our company. Dick was tough on all of us, and I got no slack for being around the business all my life.

Picture this. Dick was all of 135 pounds and he could move the biggest boilers around like they were on roller skates. He put all of us overgrown kids with big bodies and big muscles to shame. Dick knew what we didn’t and that was the power of leverage. He never put his butt in gear until his mind had moved. He was what I call wiry strong. Plus, Dick had a temper and you didn’t want to argue with Dick if you knew what was good for you.

There were only two ways to work with Dick. 1) Do it his way or 2) do it his way.

We all admired Dick because he was a true craftsman. Dick told me that he had learned to be meticulous about his trade from his dad who was meticulous at his trade.

Dick’s dad had migrated from England to the United States in the early-1900s to ply his trade. He was a plasterer extraordinaire. His dad had created magnificent decorative plaster molding for intricate ceilings and medallions that surrounded the fanciest of chandeliers in some of the ritziest homes in New York.

This was back in the day when no two were alike and there was no such thing as a mold. All of it was handcrafted. Dick’s father had taught him to take the time to do it right. Dick was serious about the work.

Hot Wire: But Dick wasn’t always serious. He, like all senior techs at the time, loved to have fun. Unfortunately, their idea of fun was initiating their green apprentices. In case you’re wondering, Dick was only too glad to “treat” me fairly. His favorite initiation was to give an unsuspecting apprentice the “hot wire.” This was a particularly amusing trick to Dick. He had learned how to ground himself so that he could grab a wire while it was still electrified.

The poor apprentice, like me, would grab hold of the wire at Dick’s direction and we’d promptly be bounced on our butt. Then, we’d run for a while trying to shake it off all the while cursing at him. I can still see him laughing.

This was only one of the initiation ceremonies. Another initiation was to hand him the wrong size fitting and have it wing past your head faster than you had handed it to him. My downfall was always confusing 1 1/4-inch black pipe with 1 1/2-inch black pipe. It’s amazing how fast you learn your pipe sizes that way!

To be fair, I deserved all the abuse I got along with most of the apprentices who also trained under Dick because he had patiently put up with our endless barrage of questions about what we were doing, what we should be doing next and why things worked the way they did. Dick would work you ragged, but he always saw his real role as a teacher. The best mechanics at my shop were lucky to be trained by him and they knew it.

The Test: On my day to earn my rite of passage into the heating fraternity, we had been given a replacement steam boiler job. When we got to the job, Dick turned to me and said, “You know, I woke up this morning, and I realized I had forgotten all I know about installing a steam boiler. So today, you’re going to be the senior mechanic and I’ll be the apprentice. The only twist is you need to tell me first what you plan to do and why. Do we have a deal?”

I was excited and I was nervous. Finally, I responded, “Well, let’s go already.” Dick was brutally stubborn. He wouldn’t move a muscle that day until I had fully explained what I planned to do, why I planned to do it and what I wanted him to do as my helper.

It was his clever way of making me think in a very different way. It was his way of having me show him what I really knew while he could still help control the outcome. He was teaching me to fly solo.

Have you noticed that what you think you know when you watch someone doing something is a lot different than when you get down to doing it yourself? You don’t really know what you know until you do it on your own. There comes a time when even a fledgling bird needs to get pushed out of the nest to find out how to fly. This was my day to fly, and it was one of my best days at work ever. I still appreciate what Dick did for me.

Are you keeping your apprentices in the nest too long? Can’t you just feel them dying to test their wings? What are you so afraid of?

My guess is you don’t have a transition plan in place that will allow them to demonstrate what they really do and don’t know before you let them fly solo.

Clients who work with me commit to creating an “apprentice to junior tech program.” We create extensive hands-on training and classroom training that they play out in their training center. They have a teaching curriculum to follow built from the manuals we’ve created.

But no matter how many classes they run, no matter how much they simulate, there’s a time to make the apprentice yearning to be a junior tech show you what they can do in the field. And despite all the training and all the resources, some are reluctant at first to let their fledglings work in the real world on their own. The reason is they fear they’ll do something terribly wrong.

Once I share Dick’s Test of Fire and what he made me do, they stop dragging their feet. They make their new guys prove what they do and don’t know while they’re still with them and able to play apprentice for the day. The good news is they’re almost always pleasantly surprised.

You, too, can have your guys talk you through the job and let them take the lead. My bet is they’ll surprise you in a very good way. That is, if you’ve been teaching what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and patiently fielding their questions. If you take the time to write down what you’re doing, you’ll be able to repeat the process with all the apprentices to come.

Go find your coveralls, and please don’t give any unsuspecting apprentices the hot wire!