Losing employees to the General Electric plant down the road might bother a lot of small-company owners, but not Earlyn and Theodore Church. "I often think we are G.E.'s private training facility," jokes Earlyn Church, co-owner of Superior Technical Ceramics Corp., a $5-million high-tech ceramics company. She can joke because G.E. has also become a kind of private training facility -- for Superior.

The two companies have developed their unusual symbiosis based on the informal exchange of personnel. In the past 10 years, more than 20 of Superior's 85 employees have made the circuit between Superior and G.E. or other nearby manufacturing plants, with some coming and going three times. "Telling people that their benefits and working conditions are good doesn't do anything," Earlyn says. "They have to test the waters themselves." They often find, however, that the waters are too cold and apply for another job at Superior. Meanwhile, they have received advanced training that the smaller company can't afford to offer. "Many people leave here as operators and return a year later ready to move to setup positions," Theodore explains.

To keep the door revolving, the Churches make sure promising ex-employees know they're welcome back. This includes lengthy exit interviews and an open invitation to the biweekly company baseball games. "Over the keg after a game, people relax," Earlyn says. "Some former employees will share new techniques they've learned. Others will say they're unhappy and want to come back." -- Elizabeth Conlin