When he got back from serving in Vietnam, Vick Kowell got a job as an apprentice working on elevators during construction of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. He’s been an elevator mechanic for over 30 years now. He told Richard Bermack:
It was a privilege working with all the old timers who came up through the business. They were excellent mechanics, and I learned a lot from them.
When it came to teaching, the old guys were horrible. They never let you look at the layouts and had you running. But it was for your betterment. When I look back on it, I appreciate it…Back then you learned hands on, and if you were good enough, you got promoted. With the apprenticeship program, the young guys are given more knowledge and opportunity. They let you look at the elevator print, where the old guys were afraid for their jobs and didn’t want to share.
There were guys who had been helpers for 30 years and never got to be a mechanic. Now they are encouraged to become mechanics. I think it’s good for the business, and the mandatory schooling is excellent.
Elevator construction combines skills from a number of trades, which sets it apart from other skilled trades, according to one elevator mechanic who’s been on the job for 20 years. The mandatory schooling takes about four years.
During your first couple of years as an apprentice you learn how to read the blueprints Vick Kowell referred to. You also learn materials handling, rigging and hoisting, installing a machine room, car and counterweight assembly, and basic welding. You proceed to learn basic electricity and how to install and maintain DC motors and generators.
This is just the basics.
During your third year you learn how to install the elevator cars – and how to install escalators and moving walks, too. For cabled elevators, workers install geared or gearless machines with a traction drive wheel that guides steel cables connected to the car and counterweight. The other type of elevators they install are those in which a car sits on a hydraulic plunger that’s driven by a pump; the plunger pushes the elevator car from underneath, like a lift in a service station.
After constructing all components of an elevator, mechanics put in all the electrical wiring and install all the electrical components for each floor and at the main control panel in the machine room.
It’s during the final year of apprenticeship that you typically learn the basics of solid state electronics and circuit tracing. Elevator installers called adjusters specialize in fine-tuning all the equipment after installation. Adjusters make sure the elevator works exactly to specifications. For this work you’ll need a thorough knowledge of electricity, electronics, and computers.
As with many other types of labor you will need excellent stamina to do this work. The International Union of Elevator Constructors – which has represented these workers since 1901 – tells all potential apprentices that they’ll be walking or standing about 90 percent of the time. They’ll be lifting up to 100 pounds about 75 percent of the time. About 70 percent of the time they’ll be stooping, forward bending, or crouching.
And they must be willing and able to travel almost all of the time.
Any kids you know who are good at math or physics, interested in electricity, physically strong, and able to focus on high-concentration tasks could be ideally suited for this trade.