When Jamie Williams was choosing a college major a dozen years ago, she had no grand plans for a career in manufacturing. She started out in elementary education, but to pay her way through school she labored on the paint line at KI, a furniture manufacturer in Green Bay, Wis. The job was repetitive—hanging and removing hooks to mount parts for painting—and the plant sweltered in summer, but it paid better than the alternatives, so she stuck it out. During her freshman year, ...

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