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(Kate O'Connor for The Globe and Mail)
(Kate O'Connor for The Globe and Mail)

I started a construction crew at 19 Add to ...

The best cure for the sick-of-university blues is a summer job. After four months of waiting tables, painting fences or selling knives, I always regain respect for education.

The trick, I’m told, is to find a summer job in your field. When I was a first-year physics student, that wasn’t an easy trick to pull off. Physics is constantly progressing. My education was only at the supposedly apple-induced theories of Isaac Newton, which was sufficient to send men to the moon, but I had earned only a B – which, coincidentally, is the plan I had to resort to for summer employment.

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I sat in the physics student lounge at the University of Saskatchewan scanning our local paper’s classifieds. Believe it or not, there wasn’t a physics section. So I decided I would look through the labour jobs, and choose the one that paid the most.

I saw at least nine different postings for grain bin builder. I wasn’t sure what that was, but when I called to inquire, they offered me an interview that afternoon.

The office of my future employer was located deep in the industrial section of town. The foyer was filled with large agricultural equipment and salesmen escorting plaid-shirted men. I told the front desk, “I’m here for an interview,” and they rushed me into the appropriate office.

“What are you here for?” asked the man behind the desk with gorilla hands and a voice like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

“I’m here to build grain bins,” I said, trying my hardest to sound like I was remotely qualified.

“Good! I’ve got 25 résumés of guys who want to work for someone like you. We need a crew in here in two weeks to start building yard stock. Can you and your crew start in two weeks?”

“Sure.” And with that we exchanged numbers and shook hands.

I immediately went home to search “How to build grain bins” on my laptop. Luckily, I found downloadable instructions online with a list of tools required for the job. I had them printed and laminated, then started calling my friends to see who wanted to join my crew.

It’s pretty easy to persuade your friends to work for you when you tell them you’ve started a company and you’re going to make them all rich. However, it’s not easy to persuade your parents to lend you money so you can register your business, get a Workers’ Compensation Board account and have a shopping spree at the hardware store.

The nice thing about studying for a physics degree is that your mother isn’t exactly sure what that means, so everything you do is physics – including starting up a construction company because you lied to an agricultural salesman.

Now, before I go into what happened on the first day, you should probably know what a grain bin is. A grain bin is a 15-metre steel silo for storing grain. It’s put together with thousands of nuts and bolts and around 40 sheets of steel, then sealed with silicone on the inside to avoid leakage.

We arrived at the yard for our first day of work with new tools and building instructions. We looked around to find our first bin. We couldn’t find it.

Finally, I asked one of the forklift drivers in the yard which bin we should start with, to which he replied, “There’s only one out there. It’s next to the crane.” My crew and I packed up the tools and drove across the yard to the giant crane in the far corner.

Next to the crane were two stacks of steel sheets, one with rectangle sheets for the walls and one with pie-shaped sheets for the roof, and a bucket of nuts and bolts. The roof looked too complicated, so we started making rings with the rectangle sheets so we could build the wall. After putting together three rings, the forklift driver came over.

“Why are you building all these rings?” He asked this with real concern in his voice.

“This is how we always do it,” I said, forcing bravado to avoid being found out.

“Really? How do you stack them? Normally, everyone builds the roof and uses the crane to build it from the top down.”

“Yes, well, we’re going to build the roof and then fasten it onto the rings we’ve made using the crane. You know, like stacking plates.” I needed to quit lying.

“Awesome! I’ve never seen that before. I’ll come by at lunch to see how you’re doing.”

As soon as he was out of sight, I informed the crew that we had to disassemble everything.

We worked for 13 hours that day, and didn’t completely finish assembling the roof. It took four days to finish building our first bin, and from what we heard quite loudly by day three, it should have taken four hours. We didn’t give up, though, and our second bin took only two days to assemble.

By the end of the summer, we were bin builders. We could build four bins a day, and we had gorilla hands. We had done it. We had lived the Saskatchewan dream. I was an entrepreneur, a risk-taker. I could do anything. I could drive along the highway in any direction out of Saskatoon and see our handiwork on display.

We weren’t successful in the traditional sense. We thought we could figure out the financials next season, but the Canada Revenue Agency acts quickly when you owe them money. Our accountant, my mother, could have prevented the mishap, but we avoided showing her any documents that would lead to questions about our “business-meeting” expenses.

The original crew from that summer was stripped down to just two people by the end: my friend Darian, a fellow physics student, and myself. We ended up building grain bins together every summer for the next three years.

Sitting back in class after that first summer, I read over the syllabus. I was required to do 20 assignments, 10 labs, a midterm and a final. Normally, I would have sighed, or made a witty remark to the person next to me, but I couldn’t that year. I knew how far I’d gone for summer employment, and I intended to enjoy every minute of that semester. I didn’t even have to lie to be there.



York Underwood lives in Edmonton.

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