tuenight first jobs magnet factory wendy scherer
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Working in a Magnet Factory and the Lessons That Stuck

I have always understood about working for a living. In fact, I got my first job at age five.

My dad ran a magnet factory. Yes, you read that right. A magnet factory.

I hear business is picking up! (yuk yuk yuk)

What an attractive business!

Drawn in to the magnetic field.

You know, opposites attract.

Yes, I’ve heard them all.

My dad hired me when I was still in kindergarten.

My job? To stamp manila envelopes. Small ones. Coin envelope size. Inside each was a sheet of magnutties — a sheet of scored magnetic rubber that you could break apart into 50 (or was it 100?) teeny rubber magnets.

All I had to do was ink the stamper and stamp the envelopes.

I distinctly remember staring at huge piles of envelopes.

[pullquote]I filled in where I was needed. I busted my ass. It was hot and fast and fun. We were a team.[/pullquote]

I’m not saying it was hard, but you know what it’s like — sometimes the stamp isn’t straight, sometimes some words don’t show up right. I’d say I had about an 80 percent success rate. I am told by my father (who admittedly doesn’t remember anything that happened more than a week ago) that my success rate was more like 25 percent.

That would have been totally understandable because I was a small child, except that when I messed one up, I didn’t set it aside. Instead, I’d put it in the middle of the pile so no one would see it.

That seemed like a reasonable plan. Who would know?

Turns out, I hadn’t thought it through. Because when the grown-up employees put the magnutties into the envelopes, it seems they noticed the crappy stamping job. And it made more work for them.

tuenight first jobs magnutties wendy schemer
Magnutties and stamped bag. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Maybe it was the excruciating humiliation of what I’d done that drove me to do better. Or, rather, drove me to higher expectations of myself. Or maybe I learned that disappointing your team was the opposite of rewarding. Either way, I learned some lessons.

Lesson 1: Over-deliver

My job is to over-deliver, to exceed expectations and to make my co-workers, clients and those around me look good.

Lesson 2: When something goes wrong, never forget to fess up and take responsibility

I was fortunate to get promoted out of the stamping business and into the bathroom and kitchen cleaning business.

It’s possible you have never considered what an underground factory’s bathrooms are like — how hard they are to keep clean. (Did I mention that the place was in the basement under a grocery store?) I cleaned those toilets and sinks as if my life depended on it. And the kitchen floor after lunch? You could eat off of it. (This is a huge exaggeration. You’d be fricking crazy to have eaten off that floor.)

Lesson 3: No job is beneath me

Do it well, and never forget to take pride in your work.

After a while, my dedication to sanitation landed me a position on the line. I worked on magnetic strip, cutting to exactly 30 inches or 10 feet or 50 feet, depending on the customer. I worked the heat sealer and the die cutter for packaging. I filled in where I was needed. I busted my ass. It was hot and fast and fun. We were a team. And we turned out the goods. Sometimes, a piece of equipment would break. We could lose time; we had orders to fulfill. I learned how to assess a problem and creatively problem solve. It turns out I had a great sense of how to fix stuff on a dime with whatever was on hand.

Lesson 4: You have what you need to fix the problem

It might be a paper clip, a screw, a clamp or it might be a phone call. Be imaginative and use the resources at your disposal.

Then, there was the assembly job. Now, I’m not sure how much you know about magnets, but if you put a magnet in a steel casing or between two pieces of steel, the magnetic force is focused and it’s a whole lot stronger. Think cabinet closures. (I could talk about this all day long, so if this fascinates you, please call me.) I loved this job for the precision and also for the epoxy fumes.

Lesson 5: Practice makes perfect, details matter and good ventilation is important

My stick-to-itiveness was tested when I started working in packing and shipping. I loved the details of the UPS book (with the carbon copies!). I think that my incredible packing and organizing skills stemmed from that job — everything fit perfectly like a puzzle in those boxes. And CrossFit has nothing on loading trucks from a basement — up the steps for the smaller shipments, hoisting pallets up the hatch on the larger shipments. That was a workout.

Lesson 6: It feels good to be strong

Girls can be tough. Accomplishing hard physical work just feels satisfying.

After college, I came back to work at the magnet factory but now in sales and marketing. I traveled the country talking to hardware and craft distributors. I took incoming calls from people looking for magnetic separators and magnets for their tiny race car engines and for their healing. I talked to engineers and designers and acupuncturists and dreamers. My job was to solve their problems.

Lesson 7: Listen hard and imagine a solution

Use all your resources and, if you can’t solve it and benefit from it, be generous and use your knowledge to guide them. It always comes back.

I left the magnet business, as attractive as it was, for an exciting career in advertising in 1991. I’ve never looked back, but I’ll never forget:

Lesson 8: Everything in life is about assessing a situation and finding the best way forward

And every experience helps inform the next.

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2 Responses

  1. Phyllis

    OMG! This brings back so many memories, Wen! The best was packing those little round magnets in their little round plastic boxes and getting the lid on before they jumped up! Fun days at the Pit!


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