The Order Board

By Keith Sones

I found my first “big money” job in 1987. It was a dream come true, at least for a time.

The 1980s and early 1990s were difficult for many.  After the crushing inflation of the late 1970s interest rates climbed into the stratosphere, dragging mortgage rates along for the bumpy ride.  Thousands of people dropped their house keys on the desk of the local bank manager, no longer able to pay the monthly bill.  Coming out of high school in 1982 my classmates and I walked into a national unemployment rate of 12% (I had to look up the actual rate for this article – at the time I just knew that times were tough) so none of us were able to get a job that year. I scrounged a few odd jobs but nothing meaningful. Things looked pretty bleak.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to university that fall, which was a far sight better than continuing to look for a job in a market where very few were on offer. While post-secondary education had always been the plan since I was a kid, I was waking up to the fact that I really didn’t know what I wanted to study. If you had looked at where my parents and grandparents had found themselves as young adults, it would have been a safe bet to guess that I would have been a schoolteacher or farmer, but neither of those options thrilled me much and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been good at either. Kudos to all of the wonderful people educating the younger generations and growing our food, but I’m sure if I walked down that road my students would be illiterate and my family would starve. 

So I spent a few more years at college, studying (a term I’ll use loosely) during the fall and spring then shifted to looking for work in the summer so I could afford the next year of school. I got lucky and found work with the local school district, cutting grass and generally fixing things that broke.  Once again, I didn’t feel like I was living my best life, but it paid the bills, or some of them at least.  I felt I had more to offer the world but exactly what that might be I couldn’t say.

After finally deciding that I needed a change in direction (you know, that whole “finding yourself” thing) I left university and took whatever work I could find, most of it menial. Having had met a wonderful woman (whom I would ultimately marry) it became important to live a (somewhat) more responsible life. It wasn’t just me anymore. I took a few safety oriented courses aimed at making me more valuable to a prospective employer and kept searching. And then one day, out of the blue, the factory called.

I was living in a tourist town known more for its beaches and wineries than its industrial base, so well-paying blue-collar jobs were scarce and highly prized. One of the few employers that offered such work was a truck assembly plant that built and shipped highway trucks around the world. There was a continual lineup at the door of people trying to secure a job, so when the hiring department called that day, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  My last job had paid $6.50 an hour and this unionized factory gig paid more than twice that plus good benefits. For me and my partner it was a game changer. We would be able to buy a vehicle that didn’t need constant repair, we could pay the rent in a nice place and finally start enjoying life a bit more.

Day One.  I showed up early and was given two pairs of blue coveralls, a timecard to punch at the start and end of each day along with an assignment on the production line.  It was my responsibility to install the steps on the fuel tanks that allowed the driver to climb into the truck. It took about ten minutes to learn the job – not exactly rocket science but a necessary part of the assembly. Every day I repeated the process over and over, the same nuts and bolts, the same steps, the same blue coveralls. It didn’t take long before boredom set in, but it paid well and let us live a decent life.

It quickly became apparent that the livelihood of myself and the others on the assembly line was very closely tied to a number that streamed constantly on a screen in the factory. The “order board” highlighted the total number of trucks that people around the world had ordered, hence the name.  The higher the number, the more trucks a day we pushed out the back door and the greater our job security. When that number dipped below a certain amount, production was cut, and people were laid off.  It was that simple. There was no pleading with the boss to keep you on, no option of alternate employment. I wore blue coveralls, and I was employee number 1103, and when the production was reduced to less than 11 trucks a day, I went home and lost my paycheque. A black and white world.

I knew that the number on that order board was tied directly to the global economy and to be honest it was the first time in my life I realized that the economy was more real than some concept a talking head on TV might drone on about.  If it was healthy, I worked and bought groceries and paid for my car and saved for the future. If something happened somewhere and the economy sputtered, so did my bank account. It was not a trivial thing and when the order board number got smaller, I was frustrated because there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about “the economy”. I wanted it to be healthy because for the first time in my life I felt I could get somewhere better, but only if the “the economy” was sound and I could keep my job.

Spending endless hours doing mind numbing work gives a person plenty of time to think. In fact, it became a defense mechanism to prevent me from thinking about what I was actually doing for eight hours a day.  Think about something, anything but the work. A few months after I started, I was transferred to nightshift in the paint department where I spent my working hours taking large bins of small parts and hanging them on a chain so they could be painted black. The chain travelled through a paint booth, then a dryer, then back to my partner and me. One of us took the parts out of the bin and hung them up, the other took them off after they were painted and put them back in the bin.  Empty the bin, fill the bin, then a new bin shows up and we started all over again.  Stand in one place, side by side for eight hours, all night. Thinking. It’s amazing what a person will do to earn a decent paycheque and how important that money is.

It was during those nights that I concluded I had to go back to school and get trained for something better, something I was passionate about. So, after a couple of years saving every dime we could, my wife and I packed up and left town to go back to college.  Many of our co-workers thought we were crazy. “You have a good job, there aren’t many others out there, why would you quit?” was the ongoing question. But we knew it would be better for us and off we went.

Time passed, college ended, and I ended up in a career where my contribution to the companies I worked for was based on what I knew as opposed to what my body could do. Over time it became more and more evident that this concept of sharing knowledge and ideas was a better fit for me than many other things. It’s a good idea to figure out what your contribution to the world can be, then make it so. I know many skilled tradespeople, engineers, pilots, equipment operators, farmers and leaders that are all doing what they feel is best for them, and without them the world would suffer.

In a time when the global economy is in a state of flux, like the day you read this article, it’s critical to know how we as a country and society can best contribute to the world and make the economy as strong as possible.  Canada (where I’m from) has an abundance of land that stores many minerals, timber, natural gas and oil. Much of the world needs it but isn’t blessed with these same natural resources. There are billions of people we can help by using our resources for good, like reducing the burning of coal as we move towards greater electrification while at the same time creating (and maintaining) well paying jobs here and around the world. It’s a true win-win scenario where we get to help others while achieving our economic potential with fulfilling work that has a broader impact on the future.

Will we create the conditions where our “order board” keeps a strong balance, gives people confidence, and allows them to thrive or will we let it shrink and let people suffer?

I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. I just know that using what you have available – and a good paying job is a big part of that – allows a person to lift themselves up and create a brighter future for themselves and their families. We have decisions to make.

Over to you.

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