When I visit a plastics processor and talk to people who have worked their way up from entry-level jobs, I've noticed that they often mention which shift they started on.
That's especially true if they started on the night shift.
“I started as a production assistant on the second shift,” one manager at Team 1 Plastics Inc. in Albion, Mich., told me during a recent visit. Today's she's a captain supervising the company's assembly department. That's a real success story, and I included her in my feature story about the company in this issue.
Starting out on the night shift is something that people who have worked white-collar jobs their whole lives can't really understand.
Think about it — especially that 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. Most people are home in bed, but an army of blue-collar workers are on the job, making sure hospitals are caring for the sick and injured, diners and convenience stores are serving consumers, police and fire departments are staffed and ready for any emergency — and factories are running 24-7.
It's not unusual for journalists to work nights. Many entry-level journalists start on the night cops beat, or covering evening city council and school board meetings, then writing stories in time for a 10 or 11 p.m. deadline. So I've experienced my share of night shift work.
But I've never actually worked anything close to a third-shift schedule, and I'm not sure if I could.
My wife worked a third-shift job one summer many years ago. It was tough on her, and on our kids. She made what's probably a classic mistake, trying to get back on a “normal” schedule on her days off, and then adjusting back to the late shift on work days.
It was brutal.
Many plastics processing companies operate around the clock now, which makes sense. The North American economy is relatively strong, manufacturers need to keep their factories working to be as efficient as possible and battle global competitors.
But working on a job where entry-level folks start out on the second and third shift is something that separates white collar and blue collar America.
And if you think about what all the experts say about the millennial generation — how they value quality of life more than career — it must be a tough sell to find young workers willing to work when all their friends are playing, or sleeping.
Choosing to work the night shift becomes a quality of life issue, even if the employer offers an extra dollar or two per hour.
It's on the second and third shifts that I think automation is really helping North American plastics processors compete with lower-cost workers around the world.
Back in the 1990s, I visited a plastics plant that was being touted as a lights-out factory. It was so heavily automated, I was told, that it could run around the clock, without operators. Except when I visited the plant, it had operators, just like every other plastics plant I'd visited.
Back then, lights out production was a bit of a dream, or at least a goal that few companies could really attain.
These days many factories that I visit qualify as lights-out operations. I can walk down rows of injection molding presses and barely notice which are running.
Consider this: When I'm taking pictures of a factory floor, I want to have people in the photo. These days, more often than not, I have to hunt around factories to find a person to shoot. There are plenty of machines running, but I have to find volunteers to stand in front of them, or search for another part of the factory that does assembly or tool repairs.
Perhaps there's an opportunity here. I should hire someone to tag along on plant visits and pose for photos in front of machines and look like they're doing something productive. I could make a joke here about finding work for unemployed entry-level journalists — but c'mon, that's not funny.