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The value of cross

Jun 18, 2023Jun 18, 2023

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It’s been a little more than three years since I accidentally stepped into this unique industry, and nothing could have prepared me for the wild ride that created.

In the summer of 2019, I was at a crossroads—or maybe it was more like a midlife crisis. I was living in southwest Florida where, for the previous decade, I had been building a digital marketing agency. After more than 10 years of trying to find new clients, keeping up with all of the marketing trends, and chasing down people for money, I was completely burned out.

So, I did the only thing any reasonable person would do. I closed up shop, sold all of my equipment, and moved 700 miles away to a place I had never even visited. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start fresh and try something new.

One Sunday morning, while at church, I was speaking to a guy who worked in steel fabrication and mentioned the shop was hiring. Having gone to school for more years than I can recall and receiving multiple degrees, the idea of doing manual labor never really crossed my mind. But, what the heck, I thought. There’d be no harm in checking it out.

Coming from more of a corporate environment, I was used to interviewing in a suit and freshly pressed dress shirt and tie. But when I told my friend the plan, he basically laughed in my face and told me that jeans and a button-down would be a better choice.

I arrived bright and early on Monday morning at The Dave Steel Co., a 33-acre plot of land tucked away amid the rolling hills of upstate South Carolina. It was mid-September and the harsh, late-summer sun had climbed well above the horizon, shining bright on the hustle and bustle in the yard.

Tractor trailers with stacks of steel were roaring on and off the property. Forklifts larger than I had ever seen barreled up and down isles of steel. The enormous tires kicked up rock as they swerved toward a stack and quickly dropped their forks to pick up a load. I watched in amazement as other drivers moved at a snail’s pace balancing huge beams high in the air.

This was certainly not the peaceful office environment I was used to. There was no escaping the noise. Even when I walked through the door marked Shipping & Receiving Office, the commotion emanating from outside sounded as if I was standing right in the middle of it all.

The small concrete office was a far cry from any of the corporate offices I had worked in or visited. It was clearly created for function over style. To the right were two desks squeezed against the northern wall, each with a computer surrounded by stacks of papers and folders.

The door slammed behind me with a thud and, from behind a small partition in the middle of the room, a woman leaned back in her well-worn faux leather office chair.

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“Can I help you?”

With a big smile, I responded, “Yes, I was told you all were hiring, and I’d like to talk to the manager to find out more information.”

The woman slid open a heavy file drawer, pulled out a stapled packet, motioned for me to sit at a plastic folding table shoved up against the wall, and asked me to fill out the application. I did as requested while she made a call, and soon I had the four sheets of paper filled out. Looking back at the experience section of the application really made me realize I had absolutely no business sitting in that office. The only thing I knew about steel was what I had learned from “The Men Who Built America” on the History Channel, and somehow it was used to put up buildings.

Suddenly, an interior door swung open, and I caught a whiff of fumes from the paint shop in the air. Through the threshold entered a robust man dressed in a flannel shirt and sporting an aged, wiry goatee that drifted nearly down to his belt buckle. I quickly jumped up from my seat and the towering man glared down at me suspiciously, as if someone was playing a joke on him.

In a commanding voice, he told me to put on the required personal protective equipment (PPE) and follow him before turning and disappearing back through the door. I quickly snagged the application from the table and made a mad dash through the door to catch up.

I practically had to sprint to keep in stride as we scurried across the paint shop and through a large bay door, which opened into a small clearing in the middle of the property. We dodged forklifts as if we were in a game of Frogger before we made it to a large, free-standing structure that resembled an airplane hangar.

Passing through another sizable roll-up door, we entered the fab shop. More than a dozen guys wearing welding hoods stood hunched over complex assemblies of steel, scattered about. Sparks were flying everywhere. It was like little fireworks going off at the various stations.

Despite the clamor and busyness, there was something about the environment that invigorated me. The air smelled and tasted like metal and dirt. It was exciting to be surrounded by something so alien to me.

The brawny man briefly glanced over my application and shot me a smirk of amusement before dropping the packet to his side. He made mention of the long hours and the possibility of working on Saturdays, thinking that would sway my interest, but to his surprise, I simply replied, “No problem.”

“Okay.” He replied. “We’ll give you a shot.”

I could barely contain my excitement as a huge smile spread across my face. I graciously accepted the position of stager even though I had no idea what I would be doing.

The following week, I started work. Decked out in my new steel-toed boots, old jeans, and a t-shirt, I arrived at the fab shop at around 5:45 for my shift. At 6 a.m., an intrusive bell interrupted the light conversation among the guys hanging out in the breakroom, and they slowly made their way to the time clock, swiped their cards, and dispersed onto the shop floor. Unsure of where I should go, I followed close behind. Soon, with some direction from one my new co-workers, I ended up in an area surrounded by thousands of steel plates.

Fortunately, I wasn’t just tossed to the wolves. Another guy, much younger than I was, had been working with the company as a stager for a few months and began showing me the ropes. The kid explained that as stagers it was our responsibility to gather parts and put them on a pallet by member to streamline the fabrication process. He must have seen the look of confusion on my face because he then went through what a gather sheet was and how to identify parts.

Well, that didn’t seem so difficult. And at first, it wasn’t.

The morning flew by as my comrade and I bounced from pallet to pallet sorting through and stacking plates weighing upwards of 60 lbs. It was like a strength-training treasure hunt.

By the time the last break rolled around, my boots had declared war on my feet. Never in my life had I known my soles and ankles and toes and calves all to conspire against me. They were strategizing a coup de grâce when the final bell rang after the 12-hour shift. I delicately tip-toed across the parking lot, which now seemed about 45 miles away, and collapsed into my car.

I yanked off my boots and watched as the many guys in lifted pickup trucks peeled out across the rocks. Within minutes, it was only me. As I looked upon the facility, I was overwhelmed with a professional feeling I hadn’t experienced in many years. It was a sense of pride and accomplishment.

I arrived home and was greeted by my dad, who was visiting from the Midwest. Being an autobody man his entire life, he was used to dirt under his nails and understood I had just never been that kind of guy. Needless to say, the sight of me being whooped by a hard day’s work made him laugh hysterically.

I continued to show up every day, eager to learn something new. Soon my probationary period had ended, and I graduated from a green hat to the coveted yellow hat. Many of the shop guys, whom I’d become friends with, offered congratulations and cackled when they informed me bets were taken as to when I would quit.

I spent nearly two years in the staging area learning everything I could about the steel industry before beginning to inquire about other positions. I was now into my 40s, and as good as I was at staging, I didn’t want to make a career out of slinging plates. Not to mention my entire body would eventually have revolted much like my feet that first day.

Fortunately, there was a shift in upper management, and along with it came a fresh mindset of encouraging individuals to grow and develop within the company.

I had proven I was dedicated, inquisitive, organized, and a hard worker; therefore, I was given the opportunity to begin learning the CNC machines as well as the automated welding and assembly line. Before long I was cutting plate and angle as well as running the saw in addition to tacking connection material onto sticks using the robot.

It wasn’t long after becoming proficient in machine operation that I was promoted into a leadership role on the night shift. During the overnight hours, it was my responsibility to keep the shop operational, and we flourished. With only a fraction of the crew that supported the day shift, we were able to crank out more steel through the saw and tear through some tons in the shop.

After a while, it became clear I had reached the pinnacle of my progression in the shop, which is never good for one focused on continuous growth. But as circumstance would have it, the purchasing position opened up in the administrative office. Having received degrees in business and in finance, it seemed like a perfect fit, so I went for it. Once again, I was given a shot.

The position immediately opened my eyes to a completely different perspective of the industry. There was so much more to erecting structures than welding material onto beams.

Working closely with a mentor with more than 20 years of experience in the industry, project managers, and others, I became rejuvenated once again. It was a new challenge. Coming from the shop, things like anchor bolts and girts were completely unknown to me. It also didn’t dawn on me to think much about what happens before the steel arrives in the yard or what happens to it after it leaves. We basically kept our head down and got tons out the door.

But there may be extreme benefit to both employer and employee to lift the hood and understand the business from a different perspective. Having had the opportunity to work on both sides of the process, I’ve learned a number of lessons.

First of all, material is expensive! After creating my first purchase order for a new job, I nearly fell out of my chair. The cost was well over $1 million! I thought for sure I’d be fired for spending that kind of money. Then bolt orders started rolling in and accumulated to tens of thousands if not a $100,000.

While working in the shop, we weren’t aware what things cost or the importance of using material from the purchase order to which it was assigned. Instead, we had a get-it-done mentality, so if we couldn’t find the specific material we were looking for, we would simply ask for another to be ordered … no big deal.

Now, I understand it is a very big deal.

So often, we get wrapped up in our specific duties that we forget they have a direct impact on others. As a stager, if I fell behind getting material together, then the shop would fall behind. Now, seeing the broader scope, it is evident that sometimes I wasn’t able to get those parts together because we had them subbed out. The supplier became backlogged and, without warning, was unable to meet schedule. Production control then had to rework the shop schedule. The shipping department had to scramble, and project managers were asking the client for more time, sweating all the while at the possibility of back charges.

While I’ve yet to experience a job that goes off without some excitement, I have noticed that when working with others who have at least a general understanding of the responsibilities of other departments, projects run smoother. We work more as a cohesive unit rather than with an “every man for himself” mentality.

Understandably, some are happy never to lift the hood and look outside their workspace to find what other interests or opportunities might be available. There are also some management styles adverse to giving someone inexperienced a chance. Fortunately, that has not been my experience at Dave Steel Co., and I am not the only one. I’ve seen a janitor step into a multitude of positions, including welder and CNC operator. Several other guys I worked with in the shop have grown into leadership roles.

While, cross-training and growth may not be for everyone, it seems to not only create a more cohesive and exciting work environment, it’s also good for the bottom line.