I don’t know how to make French seams or grade a pattern or use an industrial sewing machine, but I do know how to write the word “scissor” in English. So yesterday, I grabbed a pen and wrote “scissor” on an address label and stuck it to the pair of scissors being used by our new employee.
I did this because I overheard one of our experienced employees offer to help her learn English. English – not Serbo-Croatian or Farsi or Arabic or German or Russian – but English, because English is the common language of the six languages spoken in our small factory.
And then I wrote down the word “iron,” and then “table,” and then “window,” “machine” and “thread.” And then I stuck all of those labels on the appropriate objects. I did this to help move our work forward.
When I sat back down at my computer and resumed my non-manufacturing task, I remembered that I did this same thing 15 years ago for another group of employees, whose first language was Spanish. At that time, I was new to this multicultural crew and wanted to help move our work forward.
We work in an industry that no longer benefits from a ready supply of American-born skilled workers; instead, we employ highly skilled individuals who happen to have been born in other countries.
These skilled individuals may not be fluent in English when they arrive, but they already speak the language of making things. (When you grow up weaving Afghan rugs, or have spent most of your working life in a factory, you know how to use your hands.)
Making things in the United States, today, is something we all celebrate. If you make a pie from scratch, you put it on Instagram and create a hashtag for it: #imadeapie. If you make a pair of earrings, you put it on Etsy: #myearrings. If you make your bed, you put it on Facebook: #mademybed.
Today, if a business can claim that its product is made in the USA or handmade or hand-crafted or locally made, it can join the group of makers on the rise in our economy: #themaker. For believers only.
But up until the early ’90s, making things was status quo. Most things were made in the United States. Making things happened every day in every state.
Mill towns like Waterville, Skowhegan and Lewiston employed thousands of skilled workers – workers who were first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. Many spoke French as their first language. We border Canada, so I can only assume that they walked or drove or took a train to get here.
Outside of the factories, other businesses were started with the hands of skilled immigrants.
One of the largest construction companies in Maine – based in my hometown – was started by Italian immigrants. We don’t border Italy, so I can only assume they took a boat to get here. The sons of those immigrants created a prosperous business that is now run by third- and fourth-generation family members.
The first thing I tell our customers is that our product is made in the USA. We are very, very proud of that fact, but we could not do it without skilled employees, from away.
These skilled employees are now my friends and co-workers. They know where my daughter goes to school and when she’s going to be home. They know that my husband does the cooking in our family, and they make fun of me for it.
We celebrate small victories together, like making a deadline or creating a beautiful shirt. Some have developed a passion for country music. Some are rabid Patriots fans, and some celebrate Thanksgiving.
I’m honored to know their stories, to witness their transformations from “Just got here and don’t speak a lick of English” to “Just bought a house, and my son is going to college.”
We understand, without discussing it, that the world has gone a bit cuckoo and that scissors, by any other name, move our work forward.
Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on 11/21/15