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Sausage Making as a summer job

Updated on November 11, 2015

Lessons from the factory floor

After years of working in personnel, education, and administration, I thought I knew what work was: from typewriters to laptops, and now the cloud: Hunching in front of a computer screen, talking on the phone, usually behind a desk, and solving problems in team meetings became routine. Public speaking, meetings, paperwork and sitting became routine. I was productive, but something was missing.

A few summers ago, I found myself with no income for the next three months, and a wife who reminded me every morning at breakfast that the bills were still rolling in. Cash flow was needed. Though I had applied for several jobs, no interviews happened. It seemed that an experienced person in their 50's was not in high demand because of the surplus of young graduates.

I had been scanning the job ads for years. There were plenty of jobs, but not many that paid very much. But, there were many agencies hiring for the short-term. So, I rolled up my sleeves and signed up with a temporary agency. The highest paying jobs were in manufacturing, so I decided to see what I could do.

In three days, I was standing on a factory floor wearing a white butcher's frock, a hair net, and nitrile blue gloves, packaging sausages for a huge, modern meat processing firm. (The term "Green Bay Packers" has its origins in a meat packing company.) Packaging includes every step in the process, from measuring and carting tons of recipe ingredients, to rapidly placing warm sausages in pockets, and finally placing band name "sleeves" on cooked products and packing them in boxes for shipping, while continually inspecting for quality. Here is what I learned:

1. Work Speed: People can work like demons when they need to. At first, I felt like Lucy in the Chocolate Factory. I found warm sausages filling my frock pockets that had slid in there because I was too slow when they avalanched down the conveyor belt to my packing station. We grabbed them and slid them into pockets, only seconds from a heat sealing and labeling machine, five lined up per pack, blurringly fast. After four hours of practice and training, I was keeping up with most of my co-workers. I found myself admiring how the full-time people made it look easy. It's humbling.

2. Work ethic has no relationship to age: My temporary co-workers ranged in age from 20 to 80. Jobs were hard to find, and people of all ages had bills to pay. A person's age meant nothing. I saw 20-something college boys quit after one day, while many elderly people were the fastest and most productive. Hard work quickly separates the talkers from the doers.

3. Concrete is hard on the body: Upper body work requires freedom of movement, which means working on your feet.Standing on concrete for hours at a time requires the use of core muscles that, for me, hadn't been used that way since Jimmy Carter was President. My first few weeks on the job, after two hours, my legs and knees tightened up and began to ache. After four hours, my back and neck joined in. Then, my whole body felt like when I got bucked off a horse and landed on my back in a hard dirt corral. (That's another story.) After six hours, your nerves zone out and you become numb to the pain.15-minute breaks became like an oasis in the desert. The term "jobs Americans won't take" took on a deep personal meaning. After six weeks, I lost five pounds and had to draw my belt in a notch, I became stronger, and the pain mostly faded. I learned respect for the people who do this full-time.

4. Footwear becomes important : Like they say in the Army, take care of your feet! Never underestimate the power of a good rubber mat. They cushion the concrete and help ease the chain reaction to your knees and lower back. Good work shoes and Dr. Scholl's shoe insert products are necessary equipment. (Tip - the six-dollar Two-ounce Miracle shoe inserts are your friends.)

5. Money value increases: When I made more money, I would often spend my pocket cash impulsively. Now, after working very hard for ten dollars per hour, the same fifteen dollars has been in my wallet for three weeks. I would rather go home and make a sandwich than stop for fast food. I worked too hard for these wages to waste them.

6. Gigantic recipes are impressive: Making sausage in a factory is like cooking at home, only 10,000 times bigger. A recipe calling for a quarter-ton of red peppers requires very big measuring cups! And guess who got to schlep 10 frozen 50-pound boxes of ingredients at a time? Actually, that's better than working on the packaging line, as long as you can keep up and avoid the "evil eye" from the cooks looking down over the process, demanding their ingredients on time, every time.

7. Bratwursts still taste great: Our products are very good quality. I can't name the brands, because they are confidential, but I can say that if you enjoy the top names, you have eaten them. I have complete trust in them after watching them being made. I've tried three new types of gourmet beef franks and even ventured into new west-coast types of chicken and turkey bratwurst combined with cheese and vegetables. My favorites are the hot ones made with chipotle or jalepeno peppers. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. Yum! Despite people warning me I would not like sausage after seeing it made, there is zero chance of me becoming a vegetarian.

8. The USDA has good people: The USDA and other oversight agencies are very serious about food security and safety. After seeing the way they uncompromisingly inspect, oversee and sample, I appreciate their work. They never let up. Buy American!

So, I found what was missing in my work - involvement in physically creating something that I could see and touch and sample. Great tasting brats, weiners, and sausages can't be made in the cloud. Many people are working very hard and fast to prepare them for you. So, the next time you're grilling some delicious bratwurst, sausages, or hot dogs, why not offer a toast of cold beer to those of us who made them for you?


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