CROSBY — When Matt Edmundson was a high school student in Crosby, he had no idea he’d find a career in the plant he passed without much notice on his way to and from the school.
After all, he was interested in a high-tech job. Didn’t that mean moving to the metro to find work?
Jim Louks, who grew up on a farm near Cass Lake and went to school in Staples, thought the same thing. He was looking for work that tapped into highly skilled labor but didn’t relish the prospect of moving to the Twin Cities where he expected the jobs were.
But they found the technical manufacturing jobs they were looking for didn’t have to come with a metropolitan address. It wasn’t until he was in the Twin Cities that Edmundson learned he had an opportunity in his own backyard. Edmundson and Louks both work at Graphic Packaging International in Crosby as part of a global company that has annual sales of more than $4 billion.
Edmundson, Louks, and fellow employee Alicia Thomsen all found work at the 171,000-square-foot Crosby plant that was once home to the Scorpion snowmobile manufacturer.
Edmundson, 24, went to Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis studying automated systems and robotics. He knew he wanted to try the metro area, at least for awhile. But the small town and family drew him back.
An electrical assembly technician, Edmundson works on custom machinery. He assembles, debugs, installs and services complex machinery. In servicing machines he’s traveled for week stretches at a time to New York, Florida, Texas, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Canada.
One of the surprises for his former metro college classmates is that he’s making the machinery in a small town.
Louks, 40, has been with Graphic Packaging for 20 years starting at the company when he still had a month to go in Staples where he studied robotics and automation. Louks, always fascinated by electronics, was a shy kid in school daunted by big towns. He said there are options and manufacturing jobs for kids who want to stay in a small-town atmosphere.
“It’s amazing what we actually do here in a small town,” Louks said. “I was really happy to start here.”
Graphic Packaging International was one of a handful of manufacturers who opened their doors to the public and students recently. The goal was to shed some light on working conditions and opportunities.
They’ve heard perceptions of manufacturing jobs before — that working conditions were subpar, that work was repetitive and mind-numbing.
Edmundson, Louks and Thomsen said while one project may have repetition for a day or two, the overall work has wide variety and taps into their own problem-solving skills as they work with engineers to make sure the parts they are putting together work the way the client envisions. They said the work is not like an assembly line and they have their own customized work spaces. Louks, who not only builds parts but also makes the crates to ship them, said every day brings something new.
“It doesn’t get old at all,” Louks said.
Edmundson and Thomsen are electrical assembly technicians and Louks is a mechanical assembly technician. Along with a work environment that provides welcome challenges as they create machinery, often working in complex unison to package food and beverages, they note the work provides a good-paying wage. Edmundson and Thomsen, both 24, have already purchased their own homes. Louks owns three, with two serving as rental properties.
Graphic Packaging reports the average industry starting wage is $16 to $18 per hour. Work on complex systems is computerized and requires technically skilled staff. Edmundson said he has friends with four-year college degrees that are still trying to find a job and are saddled with considerable debt. Graphic Packaging has a tuition reimbursement program.
Theresa Schermerhorn, human resources at Graphic Packaging, said all three employees are also leaders on the floor, particularly in the company’s safety committee.
Thomsen, who grew up in Brainerd, is one of a small number of women working on the manufacturing floor. She went to the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Wadena spurred by an initial interest in electrical engineering. An instructor provided the link to Graphic Packaging and she said she jumped on the opportunity.
Thomsen said she always had an affinity for math. And, she said, she found a home in the Crosby company and in the challenges of assembly. There is also room for growth. Thomsen noted two of four company engineers came from people who worked on the manufacturing floor.
She said people often have a hard time understanding the complexity of the packaging machines that may be 60-feet long. All three technicians noted it’s a bit more than putting cans in a box or putting in a light switch for a light bulb.
“I don’t think they get the right picture,” she said.
On a recent morning with the first frosty traces of snow making roads slick, their work commutes were still measured in a handful of minutes. They imagined the alternative of snarled, slow-moving traffic enforcing hours in a vehicle long before the work shift even started if they were working in the Twin Cities.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.