It’s Only Common Sense: Get Off Death Row, Part 3—Finding, Hiring, and Keeping Good People

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Let me tell you a story, my story. In the early 1970s, I was driving a forklift in a huge textile factory in Lewiston, Maine for the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour. I worked second shift, so I might have gotten a little more for shift premium, but I can’t remember.

The job was OK, but the money was not. My wife still remembers telling my mom that if I could have made $100 a week, we would have been in fat city.

I was looking for other jobs when, through a friend of my wife’s, we heard about this place in Lisbon, Maine that was looking for something called electro-platers (whatever that was). So, we drove up there and we were both hired on the spot—for a whopping $2.65 an hour. That was pretty exciting, to say the least.

The company was Maine Electronics, a division of Rockwell International, which some of you will remember was one of the leaders in the defense and aerospace industry.

I was a program coordinator, which was Rockwell-speak for what we would now call an expeditor. There were actually five program coordinators and our job was to track and move the product (these things called printed circuit boards) through the process. 

These were, of course, pre-computer days. We five had to fast-walk around the 74,000 square-foot facility looking for our boards, keeping track of them and moving them from operation to operation.

We started work at 5 a.m., so that we would have a full status for the 7 a.m. meeting with the president, supervisors, managers, and the quality people—in all, about 30 people around a huge table. One after another, the program coordinators would drone on about where each part number was (and there were hundreds). Fairly often, if a part had not moved, the president would interrupt us and start yelling at the supervisor of the department that was putting us behind schedule, describing to him the various creative things that would happen to his posterior if those parts did not move.

It was terrifying at first, but then it got to be exciting as hell!

As I got to know more about the job, the product, and the company, I fell in love. I was part of something big, something that mattered. Rockwell was building important products, from the Minuteman missile to the F-111 fighter, the Viking; later, we were a prime for the Space Shuttle.

I fell in love with the work. A year later there were seven program coordinators, all long-haired college students working 80 hours a week and loving it. One Thursday, my boss had been looking for me so he could give me my paycheck (loaded with all of the great time-and-a-half OT money). As he handed it to me, I said, “Oh yeah, we get paid for this, too.”

Now here’s the thing. I was an English major and a writer, complete right-brain guy. I was going to be Stephen King before there was a Stephen King, so this left-brain world I was working in had nothing to do with me. You would have never heard me say, “When I grow up, I want to work in a factory. I want to build printed circuit boards.”

But once I was exposed to it, once I started living it, I loved it.

We all did. And here is something that Rockwell did that was genius, and we can still learn from it today. They hired, trained, and nourished us for not only our next position, but for our future as well. These were positions that became careers. In hindsight, all seven of us were being watched and evaluated for our next step in their organization.

Eventually we moved on to our next step: Some of us went into supervision, some into quality and some into sales or what was Rockwell called contract administration. That’s where I went and where I still am today, in a way.

Here’s the interesting thing: Many of those young people I worked with ended up having lifelong careers in the industry, working for companies like Martin, Lockheed, Honeywell, and Teradyne.

That was a long time ago, but the message is the same. You don’t offer people a job; you offer them a career. You offer them a future.

My story proves that. We were a group of young men and women who were not sure what we were going to do with our lives until we went to work for Rockwell, and then we found our way into lifelong careers. Not one of us would have sought out this kind of work. Not one of us even knew about this kind of business. The only reason we knew of Rockwell at all was because our dad’s power tools were made by Rockwell.

I can hear you saying something like, “Sure that was a long time ago, big deal; that would not work today.” I disagree. That was what Rockwell did back then but there are thing we can do today. In fact, we do have more advantages today than Rockwell had back then:

  • Young people are coming out of college with large loans and no idea how they are going to pay them off. We can offer them a solution to that problem. We can offer them a future.
  • This new generation wants to build things; they are more interested in this than their older siblings who were more software-prone. We can show them how to build things because that’s what we do.
  • They want to do things that matter. Sure, I had the Shuttle. But today we are building even more products that matter, from EVs to private spaceships to fantastic new medical devices that are changing the world. We build things that matter.
  • They are looking for interesting and challenging work, and we sure have that. It is interesting and it sure as heck is challenging.

The point is the hiring challenge can be overcome with vison, creativity, and an understanding of what we need to provide our employees to inspire them to join our adventure.

This series will continue next week when we talk about finding, hiring, and most importantly, keeping the right people for our floor positions. There are ways to overcome that challenge as well.

It’s only common sense.

Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.



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