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There’s No Place Like Home

People often asked me why I have spent most of my career in manufacturing. The simple answer is that it’s what I know and where I feel at home. 

We all have a story about how we found our current career path. I got here quite by accident. In college, I studied microbiology and medical technology. During my senior year, I was unable to secure a slot to complete my post-graduate studies and needed a job. I secured two interviews. One was for a job as a research assistant on genetic research, working with a professor at the medical school. The other was for a quality assurance lab technician at a snack food company, and that interview was first. 

At first, I was taken aback by the smell of the manufacturing facility. The work seemed easy enough and the pay was good, but I thought it wasn’t for me. Next I interviewed at the med school. The place was clean and the work was fascinating but it was an academic environment. Although I thought my undergraduate degree had prepared me for a career, I was wrong. This was in the early 80s and the starting pay was around $10,000 or $12,000. I was told that if I went back to school and got my master’s, I could probably earn an additional $5,000 but that without an advanced degree I would be limited. I felt my face get hot and tears well up in my eyes. This salary was not much more than I had earned working two jobs in college. Now to have a degree and not earn enough to pay my bills and student loans was out of the question. 

I held my tears until I got back to my car. What made this so sad is that I had been offered about twice this salary to do repetitive lab work, testing greasy potato chips. I called and accepted the manufacturing lab job the next day. 

Because I was the college kid in the lab, I was the one tasked with providing assistance when new procedures were issued, helping with standardized or statistical testing, and helping other lab techs improve their technique. This continued as a sideline for me throughout various quality and production jobs until one day my boss and mentor told me I should take up training full time. 

As they say, the rest is history. Once I went to my first ATD conference, I knew I had found my people and eventually I went back to get my graduate degree in workforce training and development. After I finished my master’s, one of my professors convinced me to broaden my horizons and get experience outside of manufacturing. This was a very short-lived deviation during which I found myself, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, begging to come home. 

Most recently I have been on the recruiting side of the equation. When people ask me why they should consider a job in manufacturing, here are some of the things I tell them. 

  • Look around you. Everything you touch and everything you wear (and a lot of what you eat) was produced by someone in a manufacturing job. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturing workers account for about 9 percent of the workforce. Manufacturing is what made this country great, and it’s up to talent and development professionals to help American workers remain competitive. I love seeing how things are made and knowing that I helped the people who made them become better and more efficient at their jobs. Learning and talent development is a win-win because when people are better at what they do, the company is more productive and that has a positive impact on the community and our country. 

Not a day goes by when I don’t meet people who remind me of my own family members. Think about your family and you probably have at least a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent who has worked in a manufacturing facility. I enjoy knowing that I am helping folks like my folks. My job affects families just like mine, and that is rewarding. 

  • I work with amazing people. Throughout my career I’ve met an interesting and diverse group of people, many of them highly educated beyond their jobs who chose to work in manufacturing for a variety of personal reasons. Many times, people don’t want to move and rely on local employers. When compared to other employers in the area, pay and compensation are usually the main things that attract people. Often our role in talent development is identifying internal talent and leveraging their knowledge and skill to develop others. 
  • Skills you learn in manufacturing are reusable in many other industries. I have found that, although most industries want people with specific experience in their sector, manufacturing experience is often seen as transferable. 
  • Depending upon the company and position, you often have the opportunity to work with various departments. In my career I have supported training for quality, customer service, production, maintenance, transportation, sales, human resources, and people from the plant floor all the way to corporate. Here again, I love learning about how things are made and that includes all the details from the raw materials through delivery and consumption. 
  • Location, location, location. Manufacturing facilities are all across the country and many outside the United States. If you want to live in a small town or rural area, you can be sure that there is most likely a manufacturing facility in that area producing agricultural or wood products. My career has allowed me to travel all across this country. 
  • You get to dress cool. Even if you work at corporate, you will most likely wear uniforms or jeans when you are in a plant. You might also wear hard hats, steel-toed shoes, bright vests, hairnets, safety glasses, and really cool hearing protection. I love the flexibility in wardrobe. 
  • It’s challenging. I like that people have the perception that manufacturing is a challenging career field. I don’t believe manufacturing is much different than any other industry because you are working with people. Although it can be nice to be in a clean office, I enjoy getting dirty and doing something a little physical. There is something energizing about walking through production areas and seeing a product shoot by and knowing that you are a part of making that happen. Of course, not all manufacturing is dirty. One of the goals for manufacturing is to contain product and make the jobs more automated. This means that things are getting cleaner every day. There are also products, such as pharmaceuticals, automotives and electronic components, which require a clean environment. 

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know what you will be getting into when considering a new job with a new company. When I look back over all the reasons I love what I do, it helps me think through a list of questions you should ask when seeking a position in manufacturing: 

  • Scope. The first thing you need to know is the scope of the job. Will you be responsible for one or multiple facilities? Who will you work with? Will you be working with production floor employees, plant management, regional or corporate leadership? Will you be responsible for all the training or are there other capabilities that will be responsible for training specific such as safety, human resources, or quality? When you are evaluating a job opening, be clear about the population you will be working with and make sure you know where the job fits in the organization. Will you be reporting to operations, HR, safety, or quality? Knowing who you will report to can also give you clues as to your responsibilities. 

  • Type of training. If a company is looking to fill a position for training and talent development, it is most likely because they provide custom training that can’t be outsourced. Be sure to find out specifically what type of training you will be asked to support. Will you be working to create on-the-job training for production employees, maintenance training, or supervisory training? Very often you may be asked to do a little of each. Many training professionals provide primarily soft skills training and although that may be a part of the job, it is very likely that this may not be a part of the job.
  • Range. Training and talent development professionals all know there is a wide range of services and areas of expertise within our field. You need to be clear up front what will be the full range of products and services you will be responsible for delivering. Will you be developing custom training or implementing off-the-shelf materials? I would have to say a majority of people gravitate to training because they love delivery. Quite often in manufacturing, we aren’t there to deliver training but rather to train-the-trainer and implement training systems. If your passion is instructor-led training, then you need to be clear about this. When discussing the job, ask for the percentage of time you will spend delivering the different services you will be providing.
  • Resources. Find out everything you can about the resources that will be available to you in this role. Listen for any clues about the funds budgeted for training. Find out how many people will be on your team. This will give you a big clue as to the breakdown of work. Find out what type of LMS the employer has. If technology is important to you, be clear up front about the tools that will be available to you.
  • Location and travel. Find out where your job will be located. Will you work out of a local facility, be home-based, or required to move. Even if you have a regional, division, or corporate position that doesn’t mean that you will sit in a downtown office every day. During the interview, be sure to ask about what constitutes a normal work week. Remember that percentage of travel is an average, so be clear about what that looks like in a normal week and where you will be required to travel.
  • Hours. One of the biggest deal breakers for people coming into manufacturing is the hours. A lot of people don’t realize that manufacturing facilities often run 24/7. I once worked with a company with continuous processes that only shut down once per year for major maintenance, and this was not on a holiday. Be clear about whether you will be required to work or travel on weekends and after hours. Even as a corporate training manager delivering HR related training, I was often delivering training during off shifts. We have to accommodate our customers on all shifts. 

Each of us needs to remember to find a job that fits us. I fit in manufacturing because of growing up on a farm with people who worked hard in physically demanding jobs. I like knowing I am helping people much like those I grew up with. 
When you are considering your career, don’t discount manufacturing because of your perception. Take the time to take a closer look and really learn about the company, products, and values. See how they are contributing to the community and the residents. You might fit in much better than you think. 


© 2016 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.


About the Author
ATD Field Editor Melissa Westmoreland is the training and development leader for the lumber division of Georgia-Pacific Corporation in Atlanta, and is responsible for supporting talent development for 16 locations across the United States. Westmoreland has more than 20 years of production, quality, compliance, and T&D experience in food, packaging, and wood products manufacturing. She has developed or supported talent development solutions for operations, leadership, and craft skills. She has been an active member of ATD since 1995. You can email her directly at
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