At the Chesapeake Packaging Co., I operate a rotary die-cut machine that converts a corrugated cardboard sheet into a three-dimensional container -- such as a folding pizza box, an ice-cream box, or a sturdy container for mailing books. I have worked here for two years.
And I can say that Chesapeake Packaging is different from other companies. I know because I have worked at so many others. I quit school at 15 when my mother was very ill, thinking I would support my family -- but I learned that was not realistic. I had no education, no experience; I couldn't get any meaningful job. I worked on an assembly line, dispatched trucks, and burned through temporary positions that promised a lot but didn't deliver much.
The first secure job I had was a union position with my father-in-law's company. It was probably the worst place to learn because of the atmosphere: my coworkers kept looking for excuses why they shouldn't do this or why defects weren't their fault. That became the way I approached my work for a long time.
At that company I started as a laborer and wound up operating a machine in a plant that cut sheet rolls of metal. I worked with people who were there not to help the longevity of the company but to tell you things like whom to contact if you got hurt. One day I was stacking material as fast as I could. I was about 17 years old and looking to be a main operator of a machine. And one of the key guys in the union came to me and said, "Why are you doing that so fast? Now they're going to expect everybody to do it that fast."
I lasted about two years there. I admit I wasn't a very good employee. At times I set my own rules about what had to be done, and it wasn't always work. The shop steward taught me how to work the attendance policy so that I could milk it but not be fired. Yet still, when I worked, I worked hard and learned a lot. But I couldn't take pride in what I was doing, and I left for plumbing work.
Unfortunately, I hit tough personal times. My marriage failed, and I lost my car. That year I drifted through 10 jobs, many of which I couldn't keep because I had no transportation. Finally, I got a job with a company that made corrugated packaging, simply because I could walk there. I started out as a laborer, ended up as an operator, and saw there wasn't much opportunity for growth because the company was like so many others I had worked at.
One of the people I worked with told me about Chesapeake and said, "Look, they approach work differently." Now, I had heard that throughout my life. When you get a job, whether it is at McDonald's or anywhere else, they want you to be dependable, they want you to be committed to their company, they want you to think for yourself. And if you do those things, they tell you, opportunity will come your way. Well, when I had tried to work that way, the opportunities never came. Nevertheless, I decided to try Chesapeake. If what people said really was true, then I would have to be different: far more professional than before.
As I said, Chesapeake is different. At other companies people are asked to make quality products, but they are never taught what quality is. Like Chesapeake, most companies ask for total commitment -- but unlike Chesapeake, they can't get or give it because they don't consider an employee to be a whole person. My company understands that it can't ask for commitment and dependability, nor can it offer opportunity, unless it is willing to live up to what it asks for.
For instance, the company can't expect workers to have a productive attitude if it doesn't teach them what productivity means and how it will be measured. At Chesapeake, for the first time in my life I learned, through the monthly meetings at which we go over our profit-and-loss statements, what direct costs are -- and how, say, machine downtime affects the bottom line. Not only that, but the company puts its money where its mouth is when it asks for participation -- by having employees sit on the board that hires all newcomers.
Soon after I started working at Chesapeake, I applied for an operator's job. And at the end of our conversation, general manager Bob Argabright gave me a book. At all the other jobs in my life, that would have been a rules and regulations book or some technical manual. But this book, called The Greatest Miracle in the World, was about personality improvement. So when he gave it to me I got more of a sense of where I had to focus my thoughts.
After about a year and a half I wanted to get an area leader's job. I took the entry-level test and failed it by half a point. And instead of saying, "Well, you had your chance and blew it," the company controller said, "Why don't you come in and study to bring your math skills up?" So I worked on my math, took the test again, and brought my score up three points.
Even after that I didn't get the job. When I talked to Bob, he told me the job wasn't right for me at that time. He asked me what I would do when people started to challenge my authority. He told me I had to get more respect from the workers on the shop floor before I became an area leader -- that people had to respect me and not simply my title. I didn't take offense at his explanation because I had already had those same thoughts myself. Now, if he had just brought up something like, "Well, you were late three times last year," I would have lost my respect for him. But he raised real issues in a straightforward manner.
Regardless of how far I go at Chesapeake, I know I'll be a better person as a result of the lessons I have learned from working here. Above all I've learned what professionalism means. I used to think that because I was working hard -- sometimes twice as hard as others -- nobody had the right to comment on what I did or tell me what I should or shouldn't be doing.
Before I worked at Chesapeake, professionalism meant to me, Work hard and do what you say you are going to do. That was about it. Now it still means those two things. But it also means more. It means understanding that commitment, honesty, and dependability are given as much as gotten. I can't ask anything of my first helper that I haven't shown him or that I don't or won't do myself. Now I try to be as straightforward as possible -- to be a motivated professional. And soon, I hope to add, I will be an area leader as well.* * *
Richard Spencer, 26, is a die-cut operator at the Chesapeake Packaging Co., in Baltimore, where he has worked for two years.