I’ve toured maybe five or six dozen food plants, but I can count on one hand the number of floor workers-I mean actual workers, not supervisors-I’ve spoken to on those occasions. This is because 1) unlike me, these people were busy at real jobs and 2) even if they had time to talk, who talks honestly with the boss standing a few feet away?
But the last book I read gave me an insight into what some of those workers might be dealing with. Specifically, it demonstrated vividly the importance of proper training.
“The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David Shipler, which won rave reviews and prizes (and deserved them), does a masterful job of weaving the stories of struggling men and women in the workforce with the business, political and societal trends that affect poverty in America. He tells the story of Debra, a single mother trying to get off welfare, who goes to work in an industrial bakery where “on-the-job training could be summed up in a single command: Copy the worker next to you.” She gets assigned to a completely unfamiliar packaging machine:
”I didn’t even know the name of the machine,” she said. “I just happened to hear them say, ‘You be Number Two.’ I was like, ‘What you all be talking about?’” Number Two was, indeed, the name of the machine, a huge piece of equipment that needed somebody to “flip switches,” Debra explained. “You have to feed the bags in, make sure the zip locks that close the breads is on. You have to set the machine a certain way-different kinds of bread, hamburger buns, hot dog buns…”
She was having nightmares. “I’m still disoriented because I can’t think. All keep doing is feel like I’m floating, because of this machine….I done had dreams where my supervisor was fussin’ because this didn’t go right. You know what I’m saying? The job came home with me….This doesn’t make sense for this little seven dollars [an hour].”
I’ve heard a lot of abstract talk about the importance of training, but Debra’s words brought it home to me in the way no consultant or equipment supplier could. Here’s a woman who wants, in fact is desperate, to do a good job, and is stymied by lack of training. Someone who makes considerably more than $7 an hour should have sat down and worked out a plan to give her and her fellow floor workers the training they needed to work efficiently and without stress. Companies that don’t take training seriously are, in effect, relieving managers of stress by shifting it downward to the workers, but that’s not a healthy plan for the long term. You know what they say rolls downhill, but you don’t want any of it in your plant, at any level.