I badly needed a job, in a well-heated office!
January 2020 was the fifty-first anniversary of my first and only employment interview for any job. It was an experience probably never to be repeated by anyone as hiring practices have changed so much over the decades. Businesses have indisputably evolved towards better practices emphasizing education, proper training and frequently turn to agencies for help. But the methods were simpler in the seventies, often subjective and also more egalitarian.
We immigrated to Canada in 1968 without any money and knew very little English. I had no university education, I wasn’t a ticketed tradesman or a star hockey player. Given the circumstance, it was a big adventure or even bigger foolishness. But necessity is the mother of invention. In our case escaping the communist oppression supplied the necessity, foolishness was my own.
Having none of the attributes listed above, the employment and immigration office then located on 12th avenue and 4th street SW found me a job in a prefab plant for a local home builder four days after our arrival in Calgary. Mr. Friesen from the office drove me there and afterwards I was on my own. My $1.9/hour job was to paint one-by-six boards for roof overhangs with a primer. The painting was done in the back of the yard. I worked alone. The foreman Joe gave me a bucket of primer, a roller and indicated the boards that required painting.
He was a man of few words and they would have been wasted on me anyway. I fell back on my father’s teaching that the paint must be worked into the wood in thin layers to get lasting results. I painstakingly painted the surfaces and the edges of the boards and worked hard through lunch and coffee breaks because I wanted to make a good impression and needed money.
Joe came at the end of the shift, counted the fascia I had painted and found me lacking. This way I wasn’t going to keep my job. Next day I doubled my output. Due to the need for speed, I didn’t work the paint into the wood so well anymore and spilt a lot of it on the ground as I was hurrying. At the end of the day, the foreman still shook his head in disappointment but didn’t fire me.
The third day I laid several boards side by side on two sawhorses, poured primer over them, spreading it with the roller. No such nonsense as working it in. The edges were not primed anymore, just streaked by the running rivulets of paint, but the output was deemed satisfactory. I was learning, material cheap, labour expensive.
The 1968/1969 winter was one of the worst on record. For days on end, the temperature stayed at -40 degrees Celsius. Stuffing newspapers for extra insulation into my gloves wasn’t enough anymore. I started to look for an indoor job. I didn’t care what as long as it would be close to a radiator. I spotted an ad in the “Classified” section of the Calgary Herald looking for a draftsman to draw roof trusses.
I looked up ‘truss’ in the dictionary and found out it was either: 1. ‘an assemblage of members (as beams) forming a rigid framework’ or 2. ‘a device worn to reduce a hernia by pressure’. Since the ad mentioned roofs in the same sentence with trusses I guessed it was the former. I had been trained as a highway designer and a land surveyor so I thought it was close enough and worth a shot.
I mailed out a resume and was called for an interview. I didn’t expect too much from it. Canada was a very competitive capitalist country with an astonishingly high standard of living. People who created so much wealth had to be super educated, incredibly capable and hard workers; every one of them able to smash my best output of primed fascia boards on any day! But there was not much pressure. Resigned to the fact that I had very little chance of getting a good job on my first try, it was just a trial run.
I knew nothing about the company, their business and what they were making. Those were the days before computers, the internet and websites. My strategy was simply to talk very little and answer ‘yes’ to every question. I had heard that in an office, one earned a salary so I calculated that to replace my current wages plus overtime, I needed at least $350 per month.
A well-established building company, they kept opening new subsidiaries to support the core business. The company that advertised for a draftsman was manufacturing trusses using metal connector plates and provided shop drawings for their clients.
The receptionist sent me to the design office run by a professional engineer, Larry. He was a meticulous, steady, quiet and kind man. His desk was covered with several layers of papers that he carefully lifted one by one while holding the lower layers down by his left hand lest he disturb them. His was not the most effective filing method it looked messy, in conflict with his personality, but the system worked as long as the layers weren’t disturbed. The more recent or urgent documents would work their way up to the top.
Larry asked several questions to all of which, true to my strategy, I replied ‘yes’, showed me a few drawings and asked if I could draw them. They looked quite strange to me, but I could draw what someone else designed so I said ‘yes” again. Then he took me for a tour of the premises.
Next to his office was the drafting room with three desks, filing cabinets and large windows. The tour was short, there were just two draftsmen, one for the land development company, and the overworked truss designer/draftsman with whom I would be working. The drafting office looked similar to its European counterpart, perhaps simpler. Larry kept talking and I kept agreeing with him at reasonable intervals.
The door in the right-hand corner led into a bigger, posher office furnished with a large desk and a swivelling chair. This was where the owner sat. He was a short, stocky man in his early fifties. He smiled at me when Larry introduced me. Departing from the script instead of ‘yes’ I said ‘hello’.
That was all, the whole interview took only a half-hour or so. Larry told me I was hired, that the pay was going to be $420 per month and that I could start at 8:00 a.m. on the following Monday, to which I said ‘yes’. I was leaving when he asked if I had any questions at all?
I blurted out: ‘Did you say $420 per month?’ Now it was Larry’s turn to say ‘Yes’. Even though it was obvious that I could have been hired for less it didn’t matter to him. I guess it was the starting salary, not negotiable in either direction.
When I came home to my wife and friends, I hesitated a bit for effect and then triumphantly announced: ‘I got the job and it pays $420 per month.’
We were rich!
I landed up working there for 23 years, and during the last eight years managed it for the owner. I never had to apply for a job in a heated or any other office again.