Learning The Skills To Build America

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When accepting a job, there will likely be new skills to learn. Sometimes you are already familiar with the steps and just need a refresher on the latest equipment and procedures. In other instances you may have to start anew.

At Hayden Flour Mills, miller Benjamin Butler often finds himself explaining exactly what he does. "I say: 'I'm a miller,' and people say, 'What you do you mean?' That term is lost," he says. Every time customers buy a one and half pound bag of flour, Butler is able to tell them about the farmers who grew the grains and describe all the steps that went into making the flour they hold in their hands.

Butler, who learned his skills on the job at Hayden, enthusiastically speaks about how 80 percent of a wheat berry actually becomes flour. He demonstrates--by rubbing the powdery freshly-milled flour between his fingers and thumb--that the batch he just milled lacks coarseness, and thus meets his standards. There's no mathematical equation or computer software that signals success--it's all in knowing his craft and materials, and how the flour feels in his hands.

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In North Carolina, one of the first things Tom Nolan did when he bought Gerbing--a wearable technology company that makes heated clothing--was buy a 1909 Singer pedal-powered sewing machine on eBay. The machine paid tribute to his grandmother, who sewed on one just like it when he was a child. But learning to master needles and thread is also his way of understanding the constraints and struggles of his sewers (one who sews, that is, not the thing underground), whom he considers critical to his company's success.

"I kept hearing 'no,' we can't make this product because we don't have the talent. No, we can't do that because the material is too hard to sew," he says. But he decided that if Gerbing's sewing supervisor Nancy Salinas could teach him, a novice, then he could say, "If I'm able to do it, then you're going to be able to do it," Nolan recalls. "What I did learn is that sewing is really hard," Nolan admits.

Now, Nolan is moving the company's main headquarters into a refurbished flour mill in Greensboro, about 30 miles from the factory to bring the people and the work even closer together.

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Upon joining Gerbing, Greg Ziglar, 52, knew nothing about making clothing. He worked in North Carolina's furniture industry for 15 years. But when he was laid off, he took an entry-level job at Gerbing, putting connectors on wires. "I just came looking for a job," he said. "I didn't ask what it paid." Promotions came quickly--from working with heating pads to shipping to plant manager to running distribution. "If you do a good job and do it well and have a good attitude, you will move up," he said.

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Another Gerbing worker, Enola Settle, worked as a sewer more than 20 years ago when the state's textile industry was still an economic force. She lost her job in the 1990s when the company she worked for shut down. For two decades, she did customer service, cleaned houses--whatever she needed to do to earn a living. Now she's proud and pleased to be back using her sewing skills.

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When Shawn Bradley joined Gerbing, he got more than just a job. "It's like an extended family," said Bradley, 26, who has been at Gerbing for about a year. Bradley used to work in a recycling plant. Now, he has mastered several jobs at Gerbing, including soldering fine connections on jackets. He is smiling, but serious when he says, "It's the best job I've ever had," as he bends over his table to make certain every connection is perfect on a jacket.

"My mom--she has three jackets--she's always bragging, 'My son makes these.'"

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