Starting my first job in Human Resources–25 Years Ago

forge, smith's hearth, fire, sparks
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Time flies when you are having fun

Today is the anniversary of the beginning of my HR career.  It marks the beginning of the 25th year that I have been doing work in this crazy confusing field.

It is also the calendar day anniversary of  the first official Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, at least in Michigan, since holiday wasn’t recognized in all 50 states at that time.    This makes it really easy for me to remember the anniversary of the start of my still developing human resources career.

I reported to work at the Melling Forging Company, wearing my cheap suit and tie, prepared to be introduced as the new Human Resources manager at this old time manufacturing operation, a drop forge that made automotive parts.  Think of it as a mechanized, high tech blacksmith shop.   It was dirty. The work did buy the employees was difficult, dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.   There about 150 employees, most of which were represented by the UAW.  Most of the managers had grown up through the ranks.   They knew what it meant to work since they had worked their asses off.  They had been through labor strikes, and they had been through several rounds of concession bargaining, giving up hard won benefits in the face of Japanese and then Korean imports, in order to help their employer remain competitive.

Here is what I remember the most about that first day.   It was a really cold blustery windy day in Lansing, Michigan.  I got to go on a plant tour.  I was taken to one of the production areas.  It was called the “Hammer Shop”.   This name did not do it justice.    Imagine huge air driven presses mounted on bases literally weighing tons which are embedded into the ground.  These forging hammers used immense pressure to beat bars of steel heated until they literally glowed orange into car parts, or golf club heads, or other tools.   The metal bars were heated in huge ovens well over 1500 degrees, and were then placed into the machine by an employee who moved and lifted each bar by hand, using a pair of long metal tongs.   This was team production work, three man crews paid via piece rate, who literally moved mountains of steel each day to make a living.

These guys wore tons of protective equipment, and had to dress for the Michigan cold because the shop had open doorways, and lift truck traffic and cranes overhead, moving steel rod production stock.  It was also stifling hot in the building so they would throw windows open to let in the winter blasts of air.   You could literally watch guys with beards who would sweat profusely when they faced to heating oven, who would then turn toward the window — and the sweat would literally freeze in their beards, only to melt again when they turned to claim more stock from the oven.

Make no mistake — these people did real work.  It was work most of us have never done.  It is work that most Americans will never do again.

Life Lesson from the Drop Forge

I went back to my office and tried to understand how the hell I was ever going to be able to work in this place.   I had no manufacturing experience.  I was horrified at the working conditions.  I was frankly scared of facing the UAW stewards.

And I had to go back to work and be a letter carrier again the next day on Tuesday, because when I resigned, the post office supervisor begged me to work the day after that first Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, because most businesses had remained open.  We were going to be delivering two full days of business mail on that Tuesday, and the USPS managers had no real clue how to predict the volumes we would be experiencing that day.   By default, they went into Christmas mode.   All hands on deck, and work until you are done!

So I sat in my office that first Monday feeling a lot less self-important than I had upon my arrival that morning, and lot more ambivalent about my new post as an HR Manager than I ever imagined I could on day 1 of my career.

The good news is — I survived.  Actually I thrived.   I’ll tell you how tomorrow when I write about Life Lessons from my first 25 years in human resources.  I hope you will join me.

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