Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines, one of the leading technology firms in the country.
My First Job: Maintenance Man
I’ve decided to tell a story about my time as a maintenance man. And before I get into that, let me share some background as to how I positioned myself to become one. I took a five-year course in mechanical engineering despite not having the natural inclination for machines or moving parts in a complex mechanical system.
If you would fast forward from the year of our graduation to the time now which has been six years, about a third of my classmates work at a power plant somewhere. A significant number of them actually work at the same geothermal plant now. About a fifth of my classmates have now become either property engineers or property managers – the kind of discipline that takes a little from almost every engineering field. And a couple of my classmates became men of the sea, using their foundation in mechanical engineering to become workers in big ships. As for me, I became an analyst at a tech company, and admittedly I wouldn’t be here unless I went through that one and a half year of being a maintenance man. I got my first job through a referral by someone we knew whose relative worked at the government agency I was to be assigned at.
My Internship: A Foretaste
My internship was an almost accurate sign of things to come. There were five of us assigned at the local city government’s motor pool – where all the dump trucks and rented bulldozers get serviced by minimum wage government casually-employed mechanics. As a workplace, it was not a great model of how a work environment should look like, but I can’t blame our city government for getting so little cash out of the very few businesses from which it could get taxes from. I don’t even remember our part of the motor pool as having any kind of flooring – the space beneath our feet was bare ground. As I look back on it, it probably wasn’t the safest place to work at. I sure hope they’ve improved that workplace by now. But the specific part of my internship which was a foretaste of things to come in working as a maintenance man was the gritty, grimy, greasy part. Working at a motor pool guarantees a daily influx of auto parts which need greasing, disassembling of parts with engine oil all over them, and having a 10-minute handwashing session before lunch. Looking back, I wasn’t ready for all this at my soon-to-be job, and I’m glad I at least had a few 200 hours immersed in all that.
A Low-Ranking Employee Learns Many Trades
Fast forward from that time at the motor pool to two years later, I’d be employed as an employee of a government contractor. The government agency where we were working at was the equivalent of the Federal Reserve in America. But it was one of the smaller branches in the country, so it wasn’t too overwhelming an environment for a first job. My job title was ‘mechanical engineer’ but I was closer to just being a plain maintenance man. Before I got that job, I didn’t even know how to change a light bulb. Now we were in a site-wide project of retrofitting all the building’s light bulbs and tubes into LED, and every move I made smelled of being a rookie. But eventually, my rookie skills would improve as the mandatory 12-hour workdays made it better to become immersed in the maintenance man’s life. I had two other teammates in our so-called maintenance department and we were led by two supervisors, which I totally did not find weird at all at the time, but now looking back on it, it was a subdued form of a political battle in the office.
What you learn in maintenance work is that projects come not only from management, but also from personal favors tossed out by higher-ranking people. As maintenance men employed by the government contractor, we were near bottom at the workplace hierarchy and all regular employees employed by the government agency – even those at the lowest rank (clerks, assistants, security guards) – were all higher in the hierarchy than us. This would imply that my ‘mechanical engineer’ job title meant nothing when put beside a clerk who probably didn’t even finish college, but was a regular employee of the government agency. This meant that anyone from the government agency could give us all sorts of jobs especially since they knew that we worked 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. I remember one time when one of my teammates was tasked to fix an issue of a regular employee’s hoverboard. He had no idea what a hoverboard was before that time, but it seems like his instincts helped him fix it. There was also a time when one of my supervisors was asked to fix a watch because it was too tight – this was probably more of a personal favor than an actual project. There was also this one day when our team was tasked to assemble a basketball hoop so that the security guards could make their fitness program more fun.
But if we didn’t have these side projects every so often, days would just disappear into weeks and into months. The Sunday which we got off felt like a very long day back then where I could just relax and get lazy watching Korean movies. The routine work we had for six days a week was overseeing the whole facility like it was a plant. We monitored the back-up power supply, cleaned the air-conditioning units inside and out, made sure the water tanks were full, and even fixed a few broken chairs here and there. We were also there when there was a seminar in the conference room. People from different sectors would get invited to these seminars on finance, central banking, trivia about banknotes – and we were there setting up the sound system and making sure the lighting, air-conditioning, chairs and tables were all set up. I didn’t know that a mechanical engineer job title could be that flexible.
I Stayed Hoping for a Regular Government Job
Eventually when you get tired of the repetitiveness and the fear that one work accident that could change everything could happen at any instant, you find all sorts of reasons to quit. The reason why I didn’t want to quit that quickly was that there were always promises coming from the upper workplace hierarchy that we would get better access to a regular government job eventually, when our time came. Our supervisor was a perfect example of this – he paid his dues working for a government contractor for three years and eventually applied for an open position at the government agency. He had built enough relationships at the workplace to rally behind him for support on his appointment (because you need political support in order to work as a regular employee for the Philippine government, unless you graduated with high honors). This promise of a bright and stable future was enough for me for a while to keep me going and work the 72-hour weeks, but eventually it gave out. One day, I couldn’t rely on that promise anymore.
The Day I Decided to Quit
The day we decide to quit our jobs in real life is rarely the day we actually turn in our notice. The day you hand over your resignation letter or inform your boss that you’re leaving is the day where you’ve already weighed the consequences, assessed how long your last paycheck will last, and either landed or feel positive about your next job destination. For me, it was a little different because I wasn’t fully independent yet. I was still partially (mostly) being supported by my mother and lived in the family home, so losing my job didn’t carry that much weight back then. One day, when I felt like the inspiration from knowing that a stable government job was waiting for me someday wasn’t enough anymore, I quit. I unfortunately can’t remember the exact day, but I do feel one workday when I just got fed up of the politics that went on and the disappearing days, I went to my supervisor and told him that I was quitting. He was of course surprised, because it was always a silent assumption that I would just go through the motions, report for work day-in and day-out, and wake up one day all ready to submit my requirements and get appointed to a repetitive but good-paying government job that was backed by tax money.
I told him that there's really no way I'm getting that government job one day. That it's a pipe dream. I knew that relatives of retirees and current employees were far more favored than anyone else, and I wasn't a relative of anybody.
And that was it for me – a month later I was no longer a maintenance man and instead starting taking up law.
What I Learned Being a Maintenance Man
If there’s one big lesson that I can take away from my time as a maintenance man, it’s to not refuse any work thrown at you unless it’s a threat to your personal health and safety. That meant taking on any type of job that went through the phone. I didn’t expect to take on masonry work at all, but there I was helping fix the marbled lobby because the site developers did a crappy job in that area. I also didn’t expect to be placing sealant in between the gaps of the sinks, but this was also the first time in my life that I encountered any type of plumbing work. There was also some novice level carpentry work thrown at us, and I never even did any form of carpentry in my life.
Also, I came to appreciate real estate management more, ever since. There’s just so much that goes on in keeping a building ‘alive’ and site developers just aren’t perfect. Site developers have deadlines and cost ceilings that give rise to a lot of compromise, which ultimately leads to maintenance work nightmares. Constructing a building is one thing, but maintaining the quality of that building inside and out is a complex process that requires experience and a daily thirst for knowledge. There has to be this yearning for learning more, because in maintenance work, one day there’s a whole new problem or issue wherein there’s no way you could have prepared for. Even if one of my teammates worked several years in the Middle East as an electrician and a maintenance worker for an electric rail system (he had over two decades of experience) there were a lot of problems which were novel to him.
And lastly, blue collar work should be paid more. In my country, the employment system has some holes which allow for giving very low wages for risky jobs. In my case back then, I was officially an employee of a government contractor, which meant I was a private sector worker. And what’s unfortunate is, government agencies are mandated by law to take on the contract with the lowest price. This leads to government contractors on the race to giving out the lowest prices for their services, ultimately boiling down to minimum benefits and below-market compensation for the contractor's workers. I saw it firsthand among those contractor employees who worked in housekeeping, who were all paid minimum wage, had only five paid leaves a year and were even asked to pay a small portion of their already low salary as a bond. And as for us in maintenance, we had five paid leaves a year as well and if it weren’t for our daily overtime pay, we’d be near minimum wage too. They deducted our salary for our uniform, which also advertises their own name.