US manufacturing: What’s it like to work in a factory?

But what’s it like to actually work in manufacturing, making the goods we use on a daily basis? And how has it changed – from Henry Ford’s assembly lines to today’s cutting edge factory floor?

As of May 2015, there were over 12.3 million people – nearly 9% of the total US workforce – engaged in manufacturing everything from Ford Mustangs to Steinway pianos.

US manufacturing

We hear from three workers who’ve been building the products that many Americans have used:

“It’s crazy busy but I love it. You come in at 3am and you go home 1.30-2 o’clock and it feels like just three hours. If I sat behind a desk all day I’d fall asleep.

Making the wings has changed considerably. They’re getting easier to build and faster.

We do a lot more by machine than we used to. But we do a lot more of the same, repetitive motion which makes you good at [a particular task] but makes you worn out. We do a lot of job rotation and that keeps the [injuries] down.

At work, it’s a pretty friendly atmosphere. But after work, there’s a lot of people irritated with the way the last contract went. They [changed] our pension… we had a guaranteed pension plan. It’s not right. We’re the ones making the money for the company.

We’ve cut the size of the plant in half, eliminated half of our footprint but we’re still pushing out more aircraft than has ever been made commercially – 42 planes a month [up from 14 planes a month] more than 2 a day. Every six hours you got to get to a new wing.

Aside from the contract issue, where we’re just trying to keep what we had, it’s been a very good company to work for. My wife and I have raised four beautiful girls from it. But I still want my pension.”

“I started on the assembly line, where I worked for about four or five years. I’ve been in my current job [as a trainer] for three years. My 13 year-old daughter laughs at me for always pointing out Cummins engines but I’m proud of what I do.

My mum works here, my brother and a cousin. It’s great – I get to see my mum every day, we try to have breakfast every morning. And I still hear about it if she catches me slacking off.

There’s not a whole lot of women in leadership roles in my plant [but] there are plenty of women who could work circles around the others. There’s a 50-year old woman here who would work a 50 – 75 hour week and never look tired. We would joke that she’s a robot.

The amount you work can vary from 40 hours a week to 65 hours a week. I hate being forced to work overtime. I would rather volunteer so I can choose exactly how many hours I want to work. We went through a phase when we also had to work eight hours on Saturday [as well as the rest of the week]. I was lucky, my sister works in day-care so I always had someone who could look after my daughter.

The technological advances over the years just blow my mind. When we first started building a new engine model we had a part you had to kind of bear hug and use your knee and leg to flip it over to get it into the correct position. It wasn’t heavy but extremely awkward. Now there is a manipulator that does all that for you so there are much less injuries from strain.”

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