How I Transitioned out of Manufacturing

The article that follows is a real story from a reader about his perceptions and predictions of the demise of his manufacturing job. Read about how Richard rebounded and successfully changed industries after 35 years.

by Richard Sykes

We who are over 50 must adapt to the new demands of the workforce and be able to demonstrate that to employers. I can explain how I found work outside of manufacturing, after 35 years in that industry, now that manufacturing has left this country.

One word can be used to explain the path I took to enable me to get a job outside of my previous career field: education. It simply cannot stop. Nature shows us that if you remain the same, life goes on without you. I always keep up with the latest technology and developments in my field. Even if you’re the best there is today, tomorrow can and will change all that. Every day we need to stay on track and up to date.

After 4 years in the military, entering at 17 and leaving at 21, I found I was too short to work in the same field I had from 1973 to 1977. I saw lesser-qualified men being hired while I was left standing with the other rejects. They didn’t have 4 years experience, didn’t have military training or an associate’s degree in fire science, and none were Vietnam Era veterans. They were all just taller than me.

I tried for 2 years to get on with any fire department in the state. I passed the written and physical tests every time at the top or near the top. The oral tests were a breeze. But, once the Captain or Chief took a look at the top of my head, it was over. I was too short for what they considered to be the ideal fireman.

I drove a truck, managed a gym and popped rivets in DC-9’s during those 2 years before I went back to college. Jimmy Carter was president and he had approved funding for mariculture. Mariculture is growing sea animals for food the way ranchers grow cattle. It only made sense to me that since you didn’t go hunt down a cow to get a hamburger, you shouldn’t hunt down a fish for a fish dinner. I finished 3 years towards a Marine Biology degree and had 3 job offers waiting even when I was accepted into my senior year. Out of nearly 1000 people who had started in the program, statewide, only 14 were accepted to the senior semester at my college. The rest either gave up or didn’t make the grades.

Then Ronald Reagan won the election and all 3 of my job offers disappeared along with the companies who offered them.

I went back to what was then called a Junior College and got a degree in Electronics and another in Chemistry. The second one was easy since I already had most of the classes from my previous major.

I worked full time nights and went to school during the day since my VA benefits had run out. Later, I would work full time days and go to school nights to get a Business degree. I was in manufacturing maintenance for 20 years turning wrenches for several companies. Shortly after completing the Business degree, the company I had worked for for the past 7 years had massive layoffs. But I was prepared to manage at another company due to my Industrial Maintenance experience and my new Bachelor’s. I worked in Industrial Maintenance management for the next 15 years to give me a total of 35 years in Industrial Maintenance. Then, the company I worked for had massive layoffs and I was out of work in a bad economy.

My company had supported industrial maintenance but most of them had left the country for cheaper labor and governments who didn’t bother with environmental restrictions. For a year and a half, I chased manufacturing support jobs from California to Tennessee to Minnesota, dragging my wife and 2 young daughters with me. Manufacturing maintenance was all I had ever done. It was all I knew how to do.

Then, I decided that manufacturing was never going to return. The only companies left were the sharks and now the sharks were eating the smaller sharks.

I now work in Facilities Maintenance in a supervisor role. The pay is about half of what I would (and should) be making if manufacturing had not left the country. I’m junior man in my company and even though my height isn’t an issue, as when I wanted to be a fire fighter, when they see the top of my head there is still a prejudice in their eyes. My hair is gray and mostly gone.

Still, I am optimistic. I’m taking classes and will become the best in this field just as I was in my previous field. I have decades of experience working with many different types of people. I have the same length of experience troubleshooting operations and equipment. I have a work ethic second to none. These 3 qualities are invaluable. I just need to prove these skills to my new company and I’m sure I will be rewarded for the value I bring to them.

So, maybe the word isn’t education. Maybe it’s perseverance.