Career Experience: Rockline and Kohler

Manufacturing….the Pit of Despair????

by Steve Schneider, School Counselor, Sheboygan South HS

 

My oldest daughter is home for the summer after her first year in college.  She has a summer job at a local manufacturing facility, working hard (50+ hrs./week) to help pay for her education.  What’s interesting to me is that when I would mention this to people, I would often hear in response, “Oh, that experience should really keep her motivated to stay in school now that she knows what the alternative is.”  In fact, I’d heard it so often that a thought came to me. “I should get into some of these manufacturing facilities to see firsthand what these ‘dens of discontent’ that my very own child is working in are really like.”

 

So I put out the call through Inspire Sheboygan County.  “High school counselor with some summer time on his hands, willing to come into your facility to learn what it is you do.”  Pretty soon I had some takers.  Kohler Company and Rockline Industries, both major players in the manufacturing community of Sheboygan County (well, actually, the world…but they are headquartered in Sheboygan County!) contacted me with a message of welcome.  It didn’t take too long for them to put together a multiple day itinerary for me to follow to get an in-depth look into what makes it possible for them to produce their products.

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect as a result of these ventures of discovery.  Is what people say true?  Is a job in manufacturing really such a distressful situation that it’s used as the measurement against which a person would rather do anything else?  Is it so bad that, in a panic, so many high school graduates go on to college, regardless of whether that is a well thought-out plan or not, as long as they don’t end up working in a factory?

 

Well, here’s what I found.

 

After spending hours watching and talking to Reliability Engineers, Machinists, Electrical Engineers, Planners and Schedulers, Pattern Makers, Team Leads, Mechanical Engineers, Technical Writers, Quality Engineers, Logistics Specialists, Process Improvement Engineers, Training Specialists, Human Resource Specialists, Product Line Operators, HVAC Specialists, and Plant Managers, a few themes became abundantly clear.

 

PRIDE

Every time I asked anyone about their job and role in the company (Kohler Co. or Rockline Ind.), the pride in their posture and voice came through with such conviction, I found myself thinking almost every time, “Wow!  I would like to do this job.”  Each person I spoke with, regardless of their role in the manufacturing process, understood the value of their position to the process as a whole.

 

On one of my days at Kohler Company, I was captivated by the stories I was hearing from one of the Pattern Makers who had been with the company for many, many years.  He reminisced about the way he did his job years ago, and shared with me all the process improvements through the years that continue to make his job enjoyable and enriching.  There wasn’t a trace of bitterness or regret as he talked about working hard each day to provide his contribution to the company.

 

Almost every conversation I had throughout my days at both companies was similar.  It’s abundantly clear that these workers are all so proud of what they do.  It made me wonder, “Does our community share that same sense of pride in our manufacturers? If not, why not?”

 

INDEPENDENT, YET INTRICATELY INTERDEPENDENT

If you’ve ever purchased a canister of disinfectant wipes, or taken a shower in a hotel, there’s a good chance you used a product that was manufactured at Rockline Ind. (wipes) or Kohler Co. (shower head).  Like most of you, I never really thought much about what it takes to make products like that.

 

My visits to the facilities that make the magic happen were truly awe-inspiring (and I’m not being melodramatic, they really were!).  It didn’t take long for me to realize that there are so many different people with unique skill sets required to make the manufacturing process happen efficiently, safely, and successfully.  Whether it’s knowing the ins and outs of a particular machine, or the flow of raw materials, or chemical reactions, or federal regulations, or packaging design, or how to manage people, or how to diagnose problems from the feedback of an infrared camera, or how to properly connect all the electrical components of a new machine to make it run, or…, or…, or…  Each of the individuals I met had a particular skill set and knowledge base that we can classify into independent categories (Electrical Engineer, Machinist, Technical Writer, etc.).

 

What struck me as remarkable was that, in a very complex way, each of these independent functions was dependent on every other function operating with efficiency and accuracy.  If one area breaks down, the impact on the entire manufacturing process is significant.  It’s the essence of teamwork. They need to trust that everyone is going to perform their duty and function in order to move the whole process forward.

 

I’m not sure my words can do justice to how astounding it is to look up and see hundred’s of heavy, black cast iron bathtubs hanging on hooks, lined up in perfect formation on a conveyor system, moving down the line to get enameled.  Or how incredible it was to stand in a warehouse the size of 17 football fields that is fully packed with towers of stacked pallets of disinfectant wipes ready for delivery.  No wonder each individual who contributes to the intricate process to produce these final products has a sense of pride and accomplishment.


INVESTMENT IN PERSONAL GROWTH

“Each day brings something different.”  No matter who I spoke with, or what function they performed, this was a common response to my questions about a typical day for them.  As hard as these companies work to tame and control the manufacturing process, it seems to remain illusively unpredictable.  And because of this, it’s necessary that every associate has the skills, understanding, and insight not just for the specific task they perform, but the process as a whole, in order to bring things back into alignment.

 

In order to insure that the company is getting the full benefit of each associate, there is an incredible commitment to continued growth.  It was very common to hear stories from associates about what they did for the company when they first started, and how they moved into their current positions through company-sponsored trainings, or going back to school utilizing the company’s tuition reimbursement offer (that’s a “scholarship” in high school student-speak).  In fact, the majority of the people I spoke with shared that the company encouraged them to continue to gain new skills in order to continue to contribute to the process in a meaningful way.  These companies understand that their associates will feel good about the work they are doing when they know they do it well.  And so they invest heavily in continued education opportunities for the associates who desire to continue to learn.  What an affirming culture to be part of!

 

As I reflect on my five day experience, I’m struck by the unexpected impact it had on me.  I went in to the experience seeking to gain understanding.  I came out not only with new insight into the complexity of the manufacturing process, but pleasantly surprised by a sense of pride in the Sheboygan community.  I found that I get excited sharing with people what I saw and heard.  Not just about the cool “stuff” I saw being made, but also the cool people I met who make it possible to have the cool stuff.

 

So, now I’m left with formulating my response to the attitude that the threat of working in manufacturing is an effective way to drive students to go to and stay in college.  It’s true that the 4-year university pathway is appropriate for many students.  Like many other young adults, my daughter will be going back to college this fall.  Not because of her summer experience in manufacturing, but because she wants to work in Anthropology/Archeology.  But for many of our recent high school grads and young adults, taking the 4-year college pathway is an expensive, deflating venture in self-discovery.

 

So to my students and families at Sheboygan South High School, I come better equipped to have more complete discussions about future plans.  Yes, for some that is going to be finding the right 4-year college.  But for the 45% of our graduates who do not go on to post-secondary education the fall after they graduate from high school, I can converse with great pride about some of the terrific opportunities they could consider.  Opportunities where they can gain a sense of pride in their work, become a valued member of an awesome process, and continue to grow as an individual.

4 Comments

  1. Excellent piece and thank you for sharing Steve! Hopefully this will resonate among our young adults after H.S. graduation and help keep our manufacturers vaible and to stay put.

    Reply
  2. Great article! Thank you for having the insight and taking the time to visit these great companies here in Sehboygan. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Reply
  3. I want to thank Steve Schneider for venturing out into two of our many manufacturers in our community to discover that our manufacturing facilities are a great alternative for the 45% of High School graduates who will not attend a post-secondary education. I would also like to point out that our Sheboygan County High Schools can offer our students the opportunity to become involved in Project G.R.I.L.L. This program offers the students a look behind the doors of these manufacturers and gives them the opportunity to be mentored by some of the best craftsmen in our community.

    Reply
  4. Your article is “spot-on”. Where would America be without the manufacturers and the skilled labor work force that works hard each and every day to supply what America requires for every day living.
    I have been in the industry for over 35 years, and I get asked by my family and friends why I keep working in a heavy labor intensive job. I love the challenge and opportunities that this job has given me and to see the transition and continuous improvements over the years has made it rewarding.
    My grandson (high school student) worked this summer in the manufacturing plant which I had hoped would teach him self worth, work ethics and job responsibility which would help in any occupation he chooses in his life.
    Thank you for taking the time to understand that manufacturing employees are great employees and take pride in their work.

    Reply

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