Manufacturing changes in the last 25 years
A short review of how the manufacturing industry has changed in the last twenty-five years.
I got my first manufacturing job shortly after turning 18 in 1970. Since then I have held manufacturing jobs in eight different companies and two states. In that time I have watched manufacturing technology evolve from almost all manual labor to very heavy automation and robotics. I’ve watched manufacturing conditions for workers improve tremendously and I have witnessed companies continue to find ways to limit the opportunity any individual worker has to influence his working conditions. In this short article I will describe a few changes I’ve seen and how these changes actually affect the manufacturing worker.
My first manufacturing job was midnight shift at a shock absorber manufacturing plant. My specific job was on the “piston assembly table” as one of nine people who together assembled the internal components of shock absorbers. An oval shaped assembly line was the center of our world at work. This line was long enough for five people to set on each side. One person loaded piston rods from a tray container into clamps attached to the continuously moving chain. The rest of us would each place two or three separate components onto the moving shafts as they passed by our stations. Near the end of the second side one person removed the completed assemblies and stacked them in trays to be sent to the next stage of production. Each shift was expected to produce 7,000 assemblies which required a chain speed that provided about 15 assemblies per minute past each worker. The work was actually physically easy and very few manufacturing jobs of the time allowed sitting. There is no way to describe the mind-numbing boredom of such a job. I did this six and seven nights a week and up to sixteen hours a day on occasion. The job actually paid much better than any other job in town at something over $5 an hour. My previous job while I was in school was at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a cook for $1.25 an hour with no benefits and no overtime bonus. The manufacturing job at the shock absorber plant was the dream for all blue-collar families in the area. I got the job because my stepfather worked there. The piston assembly position was in fact just about the best job in the plant. It was relatively clean and stable. People almost never got hurt at it and there was little exposure to chemicals. Other jobs in the same manufacturing plant were not so nice though. Eventually my gravy train ended and I had to move on to other jobs in the plant. I learned first hand how easy I had had it on the piston assembly table.
Other jobs involved loading components into machines for processing or unloading the processed components and stacking then in storage trays. Some manual assembly positions were integrated into the assembly lines and all jobs were production-based, meaning there was a specific number of processed parts expected each hour and enforcement was strict. Pressure to meet the day’s production quota was a normal part of each worker’s day and the pressure could include disciplinary action. At least the pay was quite good for the time and part of the country and the benefits were excellent. I had full health insurance coverage with not deductible or co-pay. I enjoyed full prescription coverage with $3 co-pay, (which local pharmacies would often eliminate to get our business). The seventies turned out to be the beginning of the end for the golden age of manufacturing jobs. (more in the next issue)
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