The Working Man Interview - Episode 1

Men, Misconceptions, and Making a Living in Construction

Discussion on young men working with a purpose, what a construction apprenticeship is really like, and how to build a meaningful career in construction. Rutland Walker interviews Business Manager Bill Blackman and President Ross Roberson of IBEW Local 136 out of Birmingham.

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(Transcript) Bill excerpt: I'm all for making America great again, if we're going to go back and do it the way it was made great to begin with. If we can agree that that's the definition of what a great country is, then I'm all for it.

Opening: You're listening to The Working Man Interview, a podcast about building purpose with conversations on issues facing men in the middle class hosted by Rutland Walker, founder of Union Up.

Rutland: Alright, so we're live. I'm sitting here with Ross Roberson who is the president and Bill Blackman who is the business manager of IBW Local 136 out of Birmingham. So what's the biggest misconception when you talk to people who are looking to get into the apprenticeship program? What's the biggest misconception about being a member of the IBW going to the apprenticeship schools?

Bill: With young people coming out of high school, there's a lot of misconception about what electrical work is and about doing construction work. A lot of times, that job starts with the underground, and you're in a ditch running conduit and that sort of thing. You know, a lot of them come out and say, "Oh wait, when does electrical work start?" Yeah, well, sorry, but this is the electrical work.

Rutland: Yeah. When you see all the brochures and you see the newsletters and you see the pictures, it shows all the guys working with the high-tech gear and everything. And that'll come, but you don't see many pictures of the…

Bill: …the underground… the backhoe… and the doing the slab work out in the hot sun, or the cold, wet, rainy weather and it's part of it. And that's where we lose a lot, they get out there and they find out that's part of it. And they're like, No, I'm out. See you later.

Rutland: Is it a timing thing with an apprentice, where they might go to work and they're in an environment where they are doing the cool stuff and then they get, you know…

Bill: Sometimes it is, sometimes it's luck of the draw. And sometimes it's a timing thing with your personal life too. Like me when, when I started, and I'm lucky enough to be second generation, so I knew about it all along, but I tried going to college first realized that wasn't… when I showed up on campus, asking where the party was instead of where my English class was, that kind of threw me out of college there for a little bit. And I had to get myself back together and had to make living during that time too, got married, started having babies. And so it was a timing thing where I really felt like, wait a minute, I've got no choice. I've got to grow up and do this and stick it out. So sometimes it's a personal timing thing, sometimes it's luck of what contractor you get assigned to first, what kind of work they do and things like that that you can't control, you just have to accept.

Rutland: Except now my job as your storyteller is to attract people with all the cool stuff, right, with the stories and everything, and those stories are definitely true. They're definitely important, but I don't always touch on just what you're talking about. There're like anything, there's two sides to that coin. There's two sides to it. How do you attract young people and still be honest and transparent about what kind of work they're getting into?

Bill: Well, it's just conversations just like this. It's, you know, look, you're gonna be in the weather. You're not going to be in an office all the time. You're going to have to learn to dress for it, whether it be hot or cold or wet or dry or whatever. And there's people that have been doing this for decades, so it can be done. No matter how terrible, miserable you think you are, you're making a living wage and you're building a future.

Rutland: And as we like to say, you're going to work with 10 fingers and 10 toes, and because of the IBW you're coming home with them.

Bill: You get to come home with them. That's right.

Rutland: So Ross, you're a dad also, you're second generation?

Ross: Yeah. My dad was the president and business manager of a Local 136. When I was a fifth year apprentice, he became the apprenticeship director, so I was actually his first class that he got to turnout. So that was pretty neat.

Rutland: So you knew firsthand what electrical work was about. Good, bad and indifferent.

Ross: Definitely. But I just like Bill, I had to try other things. I joined the military and I tried college, and neither one of them was a good fit for me. I finally asked my dad, I was like, man, I need a job. I need something to make some money. And he said, okay, I was waiting on you to ask and the next day I was working for a one of our electrical contractors and I kept on sticking with it.

Rutland: Yeah, is it a benefit to a young person to do just that, go to work that day? I mean there's the technical school route that some people take, but you really kind of learn theoretically rather than the apprenticeship track where you are, you go to work that day, you get to see in real time what an electrician does, what the hours are like, what the work's like, etc. And then you're learning as you go, is that a more attractive model you think for young people?

Ross: Well it's like Bill said, a lot of people don't know what they're getting into when they get into it. And over time you will finally figure out that this is really what we're all about. You know, it is construction work. You gotta get out there in the hustle in order to make money, to make the contractor money, so they can get the next job. You know, it's something you gotta know, what you're doing, and it's a learning lesson. And that's part of the apprenticeship is you get to learn while you're working. You get to go to school and learn on the job. So it's something that you can learn a good craft, and if you see the bigger picture that you're actually in a career that you can raise your family in and finally retire when you get to that point. That's what you got to see, is the bigger picture.

Rutland: When does that start to click for somebody? When you're young, and a nonunion contractor pays him $17 and you're getting paid $13, they're like, woo, I've got $4 more in my check. But at some point something flips and they're like, wow, there's a lot more to this. That $13 an hour guys is now $32 an hour, $37 an hour, five years later, and I'm still making the same thing I was making before. And the insurance piece of it, it's huge. Let's say you have a baby or something and all of a sudden, you know, you're not getting insurance from your current employer. What are some things that click in a young person's mind, and not just a young person, but someone who's new to the trades, that might offer an opportunity to the IBEW?

Bill: It's kind of an individual thing. Different with different people. My situation was, I got married and started having kids and it clicked at that point to me that I had to be a grownup. But with somebody else, they might not have kids. We have members that have never gotten married and have gone all the way through life, and their self is their only responsibility. But still, it clicked with them that they enjoyed having a future, and having an opportunity to retire and live on a pension that they could be comfortable with. So it's an individual thing as to when it clicks with somebody, but they're all there, and actually it's an individual thing as to what aspect of it clicks to make it where it's…

Ross: Once they get started, where they actually see the brotherhood part of it also, that they see that this is like a big family and we take care of each other. And we actually, the journeymen that I grew up under were old hardcore old men that would pound it into, you know, they would really work you, work you out every day and every night when you'd leave to go home, they said, make sure you get you a good night's sleep, cause you're gonna need it in the morning. So I mean, but when you get back at work, you know, it's you'll see how we take care of each other. And that's huge for somebody to see that they're part of something like that though. The bond and the camaraderie of it.

Rutland: What keeps me tied to this work and why I like doing this work, helping business managers and their e-boards and the local grow market share and figuring out ways to do that in whatever way that needs to happen for that given local. But I'm a father of three boys and I think young men in particular are having a tough time these days and nobody talks about it. And I know we, we welcome any and all kinds, but let's face it, 95% or more are guys. Right. And I think there's a sense out there, and you and I were talking about this last night, Ross, about a young man who is not really sure if his place in the world, not really sure what his role is anymore. There's been so much change in the roles of men and women. And you know, what I love about the IBW and the skilled trade unions in general is that there's this apprenticeship track that a young man can… they got to show up and they got to do the work and they got to be diligent… But if they have that transformation of, listen, my life's worth more than this, the union can give them a track where they don't take on tons of debt going into college. Maybe go to technical school and get out two years and not really understand what the work's about. You know, this apprenticeship track really gives a young man a track to where they can earn while they learn and they can be a bit part of something bigger than themselves. Just like you said.

Bill: Right. That's big too. Cause we actually recruit from a lot of different places. And a lot of it is government led. The city of Birmingham has a little group called the 'Dannon Project' that they're pushing to try to get more guys that have lost their ways, trying to get them back to a positive path where they can change their lives. And we help out with other groups too, as far as with the 'Helmets to Hardhats', a lot of people don't realize that, but when you get out of the military, you don't really have anywhere to go. You don't have a set path of where to go, you know, and this gives them an opportunity to have a career. You know, and this is something that we'd go out and recruit from the ROTCs trying to get the guys to come back in to give them somewhere to go.

Rutland: Yeah. It gives them sort of a similar sense of brotherhood and being responsible to each other, having each other's back in that kind of thing. Right.

Bill: And we have a veterans committee that actually gets together and they discuss different things that are involved with veterans that only the veterans would know to try to get their point across to the membership of a, we need to do something a little different over here or we need to look at this. And it's pretty big too.

Rutland: So, there's a lot made about millennials these days and really even now the, what they call Gen Z, you know, these kids that are 18, 19, 20 years old, how different is it recruiting them now than it was, say, 10 years ago? And how different is the job environment now than it was, say, 10, 15 years ago?

Ross: I see a lot of the younger guys that are the generation Z and the millennials that actually get the solidarity part of it more than the other generations. They see that it takes everybody together, working together to build everybody up. I've noticed that a lot from them.

Bill: In all honesty, I think for an example, my dad's generation and the generation before his, did such a good job at lifting our wages, our benefits. and all to the point that my generation lost sight of what it took to be successful in this, and at times we went through a period where maybe we didn't always keep the idea that we've got to make this contractor money because that's where our paycheck comes from. We had the idea of we've got to go out here and do what we can do to make it as easy on ourselves as possible. And now that's the wrong idea. Not that there's anything wrong with being easy on yourself, but at the same time you've still got to be productive and get the job done because you don't want to break that contract. You've got to make him money so that you make money. I think we're coming back around to that. I think we're overcoming that generation of let's break them, and back into a generation of let's make them. I think that's an important thing.

Rutland: So where do you see the IBW in five, 10 years? Are you optimistic?

Bill: In 10 years, I'll be enjoying a pension, so I hope they will be doing well so that my pension's doing well. I see a need for the IBEWE. I see a need for unions. No matter what the opinion shows tell you of, you either got to have them or there's no need for them anymore. I'd disagree with that. I see a definite need.

Rutland: Yeah. Agreed. There needs to be a thriving middle-class.

Bill: There has to be, there has to be.

Rutland: There needs to be a track for someone to go from one class to another. There needs to be tract for not just people who can afford to go to college or are born into a privilege. There needs to be a tract for somebody who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and teach themselves a skill and produce at a high enough level where they don't have to worry about, they're not constantly scrambling to keep the lights on. That's stressful and it's detrimental to the middle class. It just is. And the big guys are gonna pay you as little as they possibly can pay you.

Bill: We had a generation that was raised in the great depression, raised with the large separation between the haves and the have nots and survived it. Then they went off and fought a world war with two theaters of battle and we became the only country to ever win a two theater war at the time, came back and they stepped up to the plate into leadership and built the strongest economy the world's ever seen. And it's so strong and in spite of our efforts, our generation hasn't been able to tear it completely down. And they became known as the greatest generation and no letters, no initials, no cute little names, just the greatest generation. And that's how America was made great. I'm all for making America great again. If we're going to go back and do it the way it was made, great to begin with. If we can agree that that's the definition of what a great country is, I'm all for it. But to continue the great disparity between wages and the haves and have nots, then no, that's not going to make America great.

Closing: You've been listening to The Working Man Interview, a podcast about building a purpose brought to you by Union Up. For more episodes and more information, visit


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