I never get tired of Paul’s stories, and this is an especially good one.
THE LEARNING CURVE
By: Paul Curran
Shawn taught me a lot that summer. He taught me how to be human, how it comes to be that some people think they are worthless, and how best to help others.
It all started out very innocently – a day the same as many others.
As the Assistant Transportation Manager of a private retail fleet, I was responsible for the deliveries to over 100 company stores and the hauling of about ½ the warehouse purchased merchandise back to the distribution center. To do that, I had about 40 full-time drivers, 30 part-time agency drivers, and 15 dedicated carrier drivers (they worked for a third party company that supplied us with equipment and drivers, but took their orders from me). We used agency drivers as our volume fluctuated wildly since we were a discount value chain and so much of our sales were dependent on government cheques. Our volume was steadily building as stores grew and the number of stores grew, so we were constantly bringing on the best agency drivers to full-time employees and replacing them with more agency drivers as the fluctuations grew with the volume. I was responsible for all the hiring, disciplinary action and firing. So, I had one agency that I found worked well with us and I had a standing order for them to call me whenever they found a driver that they thought we could use.
It all started when Janice from the agency called one summer afternoon and told me she had a driver that I might be interested in (Janice knew I hired for attitude and acceptable skill levels and would prefer to do the training). That afternoon she sent over Shawn.
Shawn was the happiest, most obliging and guileless driver – or even person – that I had ever met. He was tall and lanky and dressed in an alcohol advertizing ball cap, a beer T-shirt, torn and dirty jeans and rundown sneakers – not exactly an impressive interview outfit, but topped with a smile. He was pleased to answer any questions I had and elaborated so I could get answers to questions I wasn’t allowed to ask – like marital status, number of children, etc. – all information that I have found determined a driver’s attitude and stability, but questions that were prohibited by law.
Shawn was on welfare and was the third generation of welfare in his family, a fact that, oddly enough, he volunteered with pride. He was married to Betty and had two young boys. Welfare had trained him as a truck driver and he had done some work for the agency at other companies in the last 6 months, but none had called him back. I wondered why. I liked his attitude and scheduled him for a run with my test driver the next day. I was not shy about telling him my wardrobe expectations – clean jeans with no holes, clean T-shirt with no obscenities or alcohol advertizing, a ball cap with only sports or company logos, and steel toed boots. He told me quietly that he didn’t have the money for steel toed boots. I pondered this for a minute and decided that I had a good feeling about this young man, regardless of all the obvious problems. I wrote out a requisition for a pair of boots from our attached flagship store and indicated that the boots should be charged to transportation. I gave him the chit and called the store manager to let him know. And off Shawn went. I let my driver trainer know he had a trainee for assessment the next day and I moved onto other business.
The next afternoon, Don, my trainer, came back with Shawn and brought the assessment paperwork into my office while Shawn waited outside. Don told me that Shawn was adequate and drove safely, and he thought that Shawn could continue learning safely on his own. He was interested in why I wanted to give Shawn a job when there were so many other experienced drivers out there – Shawn was at the low end of experience. I pondered that for a bit and told Don that I saw something I liked in the guy and I wanted to give him a shot. Don just shook his head, added that my new project stunk and needed a shower, then signed off on the assessment and with a “Whatever” left the office, sending Shawn in.
I explained Don’s comments and concerns to Shawn and emphasized that he needed to shower daily before coming to work. This was something that I had only ever had to tell one driver before, and Shawn took it very matter of factly, nodding his head and agreeing, as if I had told him it was required to wear a yellow shirt. I rotated Shawn through another 4 drivers who trained him and gave him a broad introduction to our stores. After a full week training at reduced wages, Shawn set out on his own.
Shawn’s delivery his first day was a full load to our Varennes, Quebec location scheduled for unloading at 5 am. It was about a 3 ½ hour drive so I made sure that Shawn knew to leave by 1:30 am. I told him to call me if there were any problems and made sure he had all the contact and after hours numbers. He also had his reload info from Montreal back to our Distribution Center (DC).
At 6am my cell phone rang on my bedside table. It was the store manager in Varennes, and he wanted to know where his truck was. I confessed I had not heard anything and I would contact him as soon as I had any information. At 8:15 a very angry manager called and reported that the driver had just arrived. The manager was furious and I promised I would speak with Shawn when he returned. I also told Shawn when he called empty, to see me as soon as he returned.
Late that afternoon when Shawn was back with his load of cheese doodles from Montreal and the truck was in receiving, I ushered him into my office. It was hard to be angry with him as he did not understand what he had done wrong. I impressed upon him the need to be timely and the cost of the 10 stockers doing nothing for 3 hours plus the store shelves not being stocked before opening. His response was completely unexpected – he said that he did not think that what he was doing was that important. I lectured him on how critical his job was, how important he was to the stores, and how much we all depended on him to be on time – everyone right down to the customers. He assured me that he would not be late again unless it was a breakdown or road closure and then he would call regardless of the time of day. When we were done, I felt comfortable that he took the dressing down seriously and sent him home – still not sure how long I’d leave him there, but no more than a day or two.
As the summer went by, Shawn became more and more important to us as a driver we could depend upon. He never made the same mistake twice and when I told him anything once, it never had to be repeated. At 2am one morning a regular driver called in sick and I had to call Shawn at home to take the run. I impressed upon him the need to get in quickly and he responded: “I haven’t showered yet, should I take the time?” I told him the one-time answer was: Not today, just wash your face, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and come to work.
Shawn had such poor impression of his value that it was an ongoing battle to help him understand what most just took for granted. For instance, our company trucks were leased from Penske and Ryder, who took care of all the maintenance, insurance, etc. I sent Shawn over to Penske one day with a truck in need of a small repair – just a mirror replacement, a 15 minute job but important. I got busy and forgot about him and realized about 3 hours later that he wasn’t back yet. I called Penske and it seems the maintenance manager had told Shawn to wait, that he didn’t have time to fix it right now. So, instead of calling me, Shawn just sat down for 3 hours, as if his time were valueless. I reminded the maintenance manager that our contract said the trucks would be fixed or replaced and that I expected Shawn back here within 20 minutes with either a new mirror or a new truck. When he returned, I explained to Shawn that he was important and if anyone interfered with him getting his job done, he was to call me.
And so it went, each day Shawn became more skilled and able to do more complex tasks. He was working more than 44 hours per week now and if his appraisal went well, he would soon become a full time employee with benefits, uniforms, profit sharing, and labor protection (agency drivers could be dismissed by simply saying that there wasn’t work for them, but employees had a whole slew of legal rights).
I was studying at University as well as working full time that fall, and come October, I was promoted from Transportation to Business Analyst at Head Office. It was a project based promotion but that was fine with me. My immediate boss – Frank – took over the day to day workings of the transportation department – and he did not like Shawn. It was a personality conflict from day one – which had made no difference as long as Shawn had reported to me. Frank was an Air Force brat and had no use for anyone who had ever been on welfare.
The second week in my new job, I had a visitor – a fellow manager from the DC. He knew I had made a project out of Shawn and he dropped by to tell me that Frank had fired Shawn. Apparently Shawn had had some mechanical problems on a trip, had reported it and gotten it repaired and got back to the warehouse late. His load for the next day was ready to go, so he took that load and drove to the first stop to sleep. This was common with the drivers and was actually encouraged; as the truck was guaranteed to be there on time (each truck had a sleeper berth attached in case there was a need for a snooze). The store manager was a prick and a friend of my ex-boss. He called the warehouse and complained that the driver – Shawn –was not ready to unload at 5 am. All he had to do was tap on the side of the truck and the driver would have woken up and got to work. Instead he called Frank and complained; and Frank, just looking for a reason, fired Shawn.
And so that summer I came to understand how it was that welfare became a trap for those who had to use it; how difficult it was for those on welfare to get back into the job market; the prejudice they faced from society, the challenge they had to even get accepted as a viable employee candidate, let alone an employee; the continual problems that their past causes them in behaviour, others’ judgments, even social norms in the workplace. Without a mentor, it is not possible for those on welfare to get back into the workplace and overcome their feelings of lack of self-worth. As a society we have branded them as valueless and they have come to believe that.
As for Shawn, I never saw him again. I took some solace in the fact that hopefully my efforts had given him enough of a head start that he could succeed at his next job.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I think we all hope that Shawn succeeded in life. I know I do.