One Worker's Story

Aug. 9, 2006
Until something better comes along.

John Fern was featured in the July 2004 issue of IndustryWeek as part of a special IW workforce series (See "Dangerous Disconnect"). At the time, Fern was searching for a new job after he was laid off as a machine operator at Minneapolis-based Ault Inc., which had moved manufacturing operations to China. When he finally landed a job, it wasn't exactly the career move he had in mind. Fern chronicled his struggles and achievements while making the transition to a new job in a story he authored and shared with IndustryWeek. Names in the story have been changed except for Fern's and his wife's.

Unaccustomed to driving at night, I pulled into the wrong lot and cursed myself for making the mistake. I panicked at the thought of being late since it was not the impression I wanted to make for a job interview.

It seemed odd making the appointment for 7:30 p.m., but it was, after all, for a night-shift position, and after filling out countless applications, any response was welcome -- especially after learning that displaced workers leaving a long-time job usually don't find work for six months or longer. Having logged in more than 20 years with my former employer before they packed up and moved to China, that statistic gave me reason to worry.

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Originally, I applied for a day-shift position with the company, but it had been filled. However, since my resume boasted a little printing experience, human resources passed it along to the night-shift supervisor who was looking for someone to run a press. It paid a little more, so I made arrangements for an interview after the start of his shift.

HR instructed me over the phone to find the entrance with the doorbell, and someone would let me in. Taking baby steps across the frozen lot, I reached the safety of the crusty snow alongside the building, crunching my way to the door next to the shipping dock. Around the fourth ring, a heavy woman opened the door with a curious look on her face.

"Hi, I'm here to see Ed Williamson for an interview," I said. She let me in and held up an index finger before wandering off. I observed a large group of foreign laborers doing assembly work on long tables, and when their frantic pace allowed, some looked over, inquisitive about the stranger lingering at the door.

After I read the employee bulletin board three times, Ed finally showed up only to tell me I was at the wrong door. He couldn't allow me in the facility without a visitor's pass, and I would have to walk around the front where he would let me in and issue me a temporary badge. Crunching through the snow once more, I looked over at my Cavalier parked in the icy lot, and for the first of what would be many times, the thought ran through my head, "Just get in your car and go."

No sooner had we sat down in the small conference room than Ed laid this little tidbit of information on me: "We work a 12-hour shift. It's four days on and four days off," he said, tapping his pen on the clipboard securing my resume.

"I've worked a 10-hour shift in the past," I said. "So, I know I could handle 12."

This was pure speculation on my part. The last time I worked 10-hour nights was 20 years ago, and it was Monday through Thursday. Ed was talking about a workweek that would rotate into the weekends on a regular basis. The worst part was clocking in at 7 p.m.

"You'll be on your feet all night," he continued. "Moving around the press, loading and unloading the parts." If he was trying to discourage me, it was working.

"That would be fine," I replied, not wanting to jeopardize my chances.

"Unfortunately, you don't have the kind of printing experience for the silk-screening process we do here," he told me. Although I could feel the job slipping away with Ed's remark, there was a sense of relief. I tried my best, but now Ed was telling me I wasn't what they were looking for. There was no shame in that. I felt a weight leave my shoulders.

"However," he added, "I've had guys come in here that knew the machines, but we couldn't break them of the bad habits they developed somewhere else. You're just the kind of guy I'm looking for right now." The weight returned.

"That's great to hear," I said, forcing some artificial enthusiasm into my voice.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I tried to block out the negative aspects by telling myself I was now on a payroll. I could deal with the long nights when the time came, as for now, I had a job.

When I came in through the kitchen, my wife, Peggy, was waiting.

"I got the job," I said, anticipating the obvious question before she had a chance to ask. "It's seven at night to seven in the morning." There was no joy in her face as she silently mouthed one word: no. Not as in, "No, you can't work those hours," but more like, "Oh, no. How are we going to live a normal life?"

We always worked the same shift throughout our 10 years of marriage. We woke up together, left the house at the same time and arrived home within minutes of each other. Now it would be the opposite, but still more appealing than her leaving for work, while I said goodbye with a cup of coffee in one hand and help-wanted ads in the other.

"Lots of couples work different hours," I said. "We'll just have to go through a period of adjustment, and learn to make certain sacrifices. The important thing is I have a job. Maybe down the road, I'll be able to switch to days."

The statement put a positive spin on the bad news but was far from the truth. During the interview, Ed told me there was already a waiting list for day shift, and nobody was giving up those positions anytime soon. He also said working nights paid 50 cents more an hour, and I passed this information along to Peggy, who wasn't any more impressed than I was when Ed told me.

She gave me a hug, and I felt like a man sentenced to prison. Why was this my only option? Why hadn't any of the other places called? Why had my former employer moved to China? Why did our little world have to be turned upside down?

"I'll keep looking for something else while I work this job," I said. This only reminded me of the applications and resumes already out there. I thought of my wife home alone all night and wondered what a good security system cost. Maybe she could keep a gun by the bed. Just thinking about it brought on a wave of depression.

I reported back to HR the next day, and they issued me a locker and security badge. A few days after that I began my first workweek on a Sunday night.

Training Day

The lunchroom was a chaotic scene as everyone rushed to put away Playmate coolers on the long shelf that was filling up fast. There was some idle chitchat but otherwise just a mad dash to get to their respective workstations.

"You the new guy working the press?" someone asked me from behind. I turned around to introduce myself.

"Yeah, I'm John. I don't know who I'm supposed to --"

"Probably Jake," he said. "That's the trouble with this place. They never let you know what's going on. Just throw them in the water. Either they sink or swim. Sometimes we find them at the bottom. Did they show you how to clock in your badge number?"

"No, I was going to ask --"

"I'll show you, and then we'll find Jake. He's usually late. I'm Dale -- one of the press operators." We shook hands, and I was glad he was there to help. He was obviously going out of his way, and it meant a lot. While going through the instructions at the time clock, Jake arrived.

"This is John," Dale told him. "He's the new operator." Jake introduced himself and led me over to the press where I would be training. It was roughly the size of a small garage, and sounded like 20 Shop-Vacs all running at once. He handed me a small packet containing a pair of soft foam earplugs.

"These are mandatory," he said. "You'll get used to them after a few weeks."

After a quick introduction on how the press worked, Jake hoisted a stack of parts off a large rack on wheels, parked next to the press. The previous shift did the initial setup, so all I had to do was load and unload the parts to get a feel for the job.

"The machine always has to run at full speed," Jake said. "Always watch the parts, and never get in the way of the printing heads coming forward; they will knock you out." It sounded like advice worth heeding, and I promised myself I wouldn't forget it.

No Rest For The Weary

The first few hours went fast, but that was small consolation with 10 more to go. I averted my eyes from the clock as if it were a solar eclipse, concentrating on the numbers board instead -- a red digital read-out about a foot high and 3 feet long. This one displayed the productivity from each press, a reminder that quantity was a big priority.

I kept busy loading, unloading, inspecting and packing until the order was complete before Jake walked me through the next setup. He ran down the paperwork procedures, but may as well have been trying to teach me a foreign language. There was an extensive checklist for both operator and quality control, and every minute the press was down had to be recorded with a detailed explanation as to why.

The long night wore on, and I began to feel the effects of only getting four hours sleep earlier in the day. I tried to stay up the past few nights to adjust, but my body fought it the whole time, so I got by on catnaps and knew the first night would force me to adjust the hard way.

By the time I got home, my wife had already left for work, and I fell into bed, my head hitting the pillow like a boxer's fist into a punching bag. I always heard the expression "too tired to sleep" but never knew what it truly meant until now. I finally dozed off an hour after lying down, but that didn't last long.

The first lesson learned about sleeping during the day was turn off the ringer on the phone. The pesky telemarketers who had only been a minor annoyance before were now disturbing sleep that was essential. Coffee became my lifeblood, and I relied on sugar to keep me going even if the imminent comedown was waiting just around the corner. As runners say, I usually hit "the wall" at one or two in the morning, and many times, that was when everything went wrong.

John Fern

The worst came early in my training when I was sent to another press. The regular operator was on vacation, so it was time for my baptism of fire.

Things were going smooth until the loading mechanism malfunctioned, dropping extra parts onto the wheel transporting them under the screens where they were printed. I shut down the machine and alerted maintenance. They were unsure of the problem, but made some adjustments, confident the problem was resolved. It wasn't.

While I was busy getting the paperwork in order, the press continued dropping extra parts, which then stuck together, and with inadequate clearance, ripped the silk screens open, spilling ink onto the rotating wheel past the UV lights. By the time the inspection camera activated the automatic shutoff, the damage was done.

Slowly, I walked around the entire press examining the multicolored disaster in front of me. It was bad, and I made the long walk over to Jake's press to give him the news. Soon there was a crowd, as everybody had to see what the new guy did. I wanted to tell them the machine was broken and maintenance never fixed it. It wasn't my fault. Instead, I just listened as Jake explained how to take a razor blade and scrape the ink off the nests and wheel. Then came the industrial paper towels and the heavy-duty thinner. Scraping, scrubbing, wiping and rubbing each nest area of the large wheel was painstakingly slow and tedious. The worst part was seeing people out of the corner of my eye slowing down as they went by as if they were rubberneckers checking out a five-car pileup on the freeway.

Maintenance was called over, and after careful examination, discovered the problem, and made preparations to replace the faulty part. During the down time, I went over to help one of the other printers.

"Are you going to stay?" he asked.

"Hey, stuff goes wrong. I don't see that as a reason to quit," I replied. The truth was that while scraping ink off the floor, I seriously considered getting up, going out to my car and driving home, never to return.

"Oh, I know that," he said. "I was just asking because a lot of new guys don't stick around here too long."

"Well, it could be these hours," I said.

"Maybe so," he said. "In any case, I hope you stay. It gets better after a while." It's amazing how a few words of encouragement can lift your spirits. Especially after a major disaster like the one I had just gone through. After that night, I thought things could only get better, but I was wrong to assume anything.

A Time For Change

When work was busy, I printed 30,000 parts a night. This was on a good shift when everything went well, and was still barely within quota. When business slowed and printing orders were scarce, the printers would have to help out in final assembly.

The work is tedious, and the pace is very fast. Each employee was notified what their hourly percentage of quota was throughout the night. I thought running a press for 12 hours was tough, but the assembly department pushed the limits of my endurance to the very edge.

If you're not used to this type of labor, your back, neck and shoulders become extremely sore from the constant repetition while small cuts form on your fingers from working with the thin cardboard of the various products. Since the job requires a certain amount of finger dexterity, gloves only get in the way, but it helps to have Band-Aids until your skin toughens after a week or two.

Although many of the jobs on the production lines could easily be performed while sitting, chairs are forbidden. Most of the employees were immigrants working through a temporary service and do these jobs day in and day out, earning minimum wage with no benefits, paid vacations or holidays.

The first time I worked an entire shift back there it almost killed me. I could only imagine what it was like during the summer months when the only relief comes from large fans that do little more than push hot air around.

On a particularly slow week, I was working in back, concentrating on the four days off just to get through the night when my supervisor approached and asked me to work an extra shift; I declined.

"Some day, you're going to want some time off, and someone is going to have take over your press," he said. "If you don't volunteer for others, there might not be anyone to take over for you, and I would have to deny you vacation time." He set the clipboard down in front of me, and I looked at the sign up sheet as if I was actually considering it before telling him I had to pass.

"Just remember what I said," he told me, picking up the clipboard and walking away. He had always been a pretty decent guy up until then. As long as I showed up every day, and made quota, he seemed happy and left me alone. Now, his boss hat was on for the first time.

The next day was Easter Sunday, and my four days on meant I was working the unofficial holiday. I was going to ask for it off, until Ed showed his obvious displeasure at my lack of interest in the overtime, and I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of turning me down. As if working Easter wasn't bad enough, I was stuck in back doing final assembly again on the worst packing job imaginable.

All night, I thought about missing my family's Easter celebration dinner while I was stacking boxes on pallets faster then they could haul them away. I wanted to take off my security badge, lay it on top of a stack of boxes and walk out. Once they knew I was gone without the I.D. card, it would be obvious that I wasn't coming back.

The fear of unemployment made me choose the responsible solution, and that would be to find another job before I left this one. Planning my escape, I knew the first course of action would be to intensify my job search. There had to be something out there working the day shift with comparable pay.

Four months later, my search paid off.

Something Better

A small company nearby was hiring after a merger with another small company. They couldn't offer insurance, and didn't pay for vacation or holidays, but the pay was the same. The best part was an eight-hour, five-day workweek. Wasting no time, I sent in my resume and was called in for an interview the following day. Before I knew what hit me, the company made me an offer, and I took it.

Driving into work that night to put in my two-week notice, I could feel the chains falling away. There was a spring in my step when I dropped off the notice with HR before proceeding to my press.

I let Ed know I was leaving, and he wasted no time sending me back to final assembly. My printing career was over, and I didn't make it through my two-week notice, falling three days short. I was penalized my remaining vacation time: 22 hours -- worth every penny.

At the end of my last night, I was escorted out of the building and said goodbye to Ed at the door. Walking across the parking lot, there was a cool spring breeze, and I glanced over to the far end of the building to the door by the shipping dock where I went in for my interview back on that cold December evening a million years ago. The first time I heard the warning in my head, "Just get in your car and go."

This time I did.

John Fern now works in operations for Plymouth, Minn.-based fiber-optic and copper cable manufacturer APA Cables & Networks Inc. He also writes and has a self-published book called "Columns: From the Past." Fern can be reached at [email protected].

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