"I'm used to dealing with ministers"

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 7:37 Author: Emma Rickman

The operations manager – K – handed in his notice at the end of 2019. In K’s final week, the general plant manager also announces he’s leaving, that he has partly served his notice, and the new manager will start after the weekend for a handover period.

“They wanted to leave together” is the word in the control room “And it was Lumley St (higher management) that made him keep it quiet. Vacancy wasn’t advertised internally.”

The recruitment for a new Ops manager has already dragged into a second round. Workers at the ERF were all routing for one of their own, A, the most qualified young operator, who darts around the plant with business-like authority and explains things too quickly for the apprentices to follow.

When he fails at interview a disagreement with the general manager is blamed.

Then there is an old, cockney shift leader who many fear will get the position – “He used to bellow like a sergeant major” because in a former life, he was. Thankfully he’s not recruited.

Meanwhile, as a different Ops manager is sought, M begins as general manager. I’d grown to like our old GM, who looks and sounds like a young David Cameron, but with an engineering background and a posh lisp. M on the other hand looks bullish, not making eye contact with anyone he feels unworthy of his attention.

“He didn’t introduce himself or shake my hand,” laughs J (mechanic) “he spoke to M and V ‘caus I reckon he thinks M is some kind of manager, and V is shift leader.”
“It’s like eh – hello?!” adds Mc, an operator “we’re operatives, we know things, ask us!”
“I’ve been doing some digging at his old workplace,” P, electrician “He’s not good news. Something not quite right with ‘im.”

In the same week I’m helping with electrical fault-finding, and the back-and-forth is exhausting my colleague. A contractor is attempting to fix errors on the DCS system (the plant’s computer control) and making mistakes. J the electrician has been moving back and forth between the boiler houses to prove that errors are being made – we drive out to Park Hill and J connects wires across signal terminals for the pumps while I read the computer graphic.

“That’s signal on”
“Pump is red.”
“Not green?”
“No, red.”
“What about now?”
“Grey – but the pipe is green.”
“Well he’s sorted out the harder part then – but the pumps are definitely coming up wrong – I told him that – it’s like he’s not hearing me –”

We get back to plant and J heads to the other pump room to reboot the PLC. I head to the management offices to drop off the van keys, when the old GM hails me and ushers me into the new manager’s office.

“M this is – one of our second-year apprentices.”
“Hello.” he stands behind his desk and shakes my hand. I’m caught off guard; my hands are not that dirty by normal standards, but the manager’s office is very clean and I’m dusty from the boiler house. My boots literally feel too big; heavy and clumsy clown’s feet.
“Hello, good to meet you.”
We have quite a long conversation, where he tells me about his background and asks in some detail about mine.
“Which college were you at?”
“Oh you mean...”
“Oxford wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah, um, St. Hilda’s was where I did my degree.”
“I used to negotiate region-wide deals for the steel industry. I’m used to dealing with government ministers – not sure what it’s going to be like with local councillors...”

He talks about his qualifications a bit more and then I manage to politely escape, disgusted and uncomfortable with the conspiratorial chat.

I mention this chat to A, senior electrician.

“He pulled me in, talked a lot about his background, bigging himself up.”
“Oh yeah?”
“He’s very posh.”
“Ha! Posher than you?”

I laugh and make my voice clear and clipped “Yes, that is, in fact, possible.”

• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a Combined Heat and Power plant in Sheffield.

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