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Skills I learned in a cheese-packaging factory

I'm going to describe an occupation by listing skills that the job requires, and I want you - the reader - to try to guess what job I'm describing without jumping ahead:

Attention to detail, teamwork, communication, awareness of surroundings, hand-eye coordination.

A few ideas might come to mind, but I'm describing necessary skills for factory workers. Probably not what you were thinking, was it? I don't blame you. Factory work is oftentimes a forgotten or little-regarded profession. But it's also one of the most important.

Ever wonder how the milk you buy at a grocery store got from the farm to the refrigerated section? Or what steps that pair of shoes you've been eyeing took to get from the production line to the shelf? Or maybe how many people were needed to make sure none of your dozen eggs got cracked as they went into the carton?

The answer to those questions is a factory. Everything you buy at a store most likely went through a factory before getting placed on a shelf. And a lot of products have been through more than one factory.

But many people don't actually know what goes on in production or packaging factories. After talking to a few people about what they think of when they hear the word "factory," the general consensus I got was that factories are boring, dingy places with robot-like employees performing monotonous tasks all day.

While I can't speak for what goes on in all factories, I do have enough experience to know that those stereotypes aren't always true.

During college, I spent my summers and my winter breaks working in a cheese-packaging factory in my hometown. And yes - I am aware of how stereotypical that sounds for a Wisconsinite. But after spending a few months each year working 40-hour weeks in a factory, I learned there's a lot more to the job than people realize. I used all of the skills listed above and more in a typical day.

Attention to detail

In this particular factory, we transformed large blocks of cheese into packaged slices, shreds and cubes ready for retail. We had to make sure all the packages were physically pleasing to the eye and didn't have any issues. For example, no one wants to buy a package of cheese with broken or melted slices. So it was our job to make sure none of that gets to retailers.

We also had to make sure ziplock packages had functioning zippers and all products had correct expiration dates. Sometimes it takes a critical eye to catch a seemingly small mistake that could cause a huge problem.

Hand-eye coordination

Did I mention that in many cases we only had a couple seconds to determine if there is or isn't something wrong with a package? After the cheese is packaged, it comes speeding down the assembly line to someone waiting to box it up. If that worker takes too long to look at a package, there will be a huge pile-up in a matter of seconds, which slows down production. It takes a balance of knowing where to look on a package while grabbing them quickly to neatly place in a box - emphasis on "neatly." Retailers don't appreciate getting boxes of crumpled packages.

Teamwork and communication

Because the work takes place on assembly lines, teamwork and communication are extremely important. Some lines have more than a dozen people working on them at a time. The line will only go smoothly if there's effective communication between workers. If one part of a line falters, everyone needs to know so the issue can be fixed before a bigger problem occurs.

Awareness of surroundings

This is perhaps one of the most important skills I needed, mainly because of how many things were going on at once. In the production room where I worked, there were a couple dozen assembly lines, each complete with multiple machines; hundreds of line workers and machine operators performing various tasks; and numerous forklifts zipping between lines to drop off blocks of cheese or pick up stacks of boxes.

Because the machines are so loud, everyone is required to wear ear plugs, which makes hearing difficult. So workers must be on alert at all times to make sure they don't get in the way of forklift drivers or other dangerous equipment.

Sometimes I found factory work to be boring and monotonous, especially if I was working on one of the slower production lines, but in many cases there was enough going on to keep me on my toes.

And the workers are far from robotic. Whether they have been there three months or 30 years, many of them find ways to keep their energy up and their time from passing too slowly.

They also acquire a unique set of skills, one of which includes being able to catch stacks of cheese coming out of a machine and quickly place them perfectly straight on another conveyor belt before the next stack comes. Maybe that seems like an odd skill, but it's definitely unique and hard to master.

Factory work opened my eyes to new experiences, while also giving me a small taste of the "real world" before I had to tackle it on my own and a greater appreciation for the work that goes into retail products.

And of course I'm now a self-proclaimed cheese expert.