I half-jokingly tell people that I’m a child of General Electric. I grew up within minutes of two major GE plants. In the region, if you didn’t have a friend, acquaintance, or family member who worked for GE at one time or another (or a “friend of a friend”), you were probably in the minority. Even today, I have at least one family member and one old college roommate who still work there, and if he puts on one of his old GE jackets, my father will often get a “hey, I/my buddy works/used to work there” comment.
First Job, Part One
In the mid-90s, GE Silicones (which was actually part of General Electic at the time; there are still GE Silicones branded products on the market but that business unit was sold off several years ago) had a program where employees with college-age kids could submit resumes for consideration for internships at the plant over the summer. My father suggested that I write up a resume so he could put it in, I did, he did, and…I heard nothing back. So I kept working the garden department at the local KMart. One day, I got paged on the intercom that I had a phone call - it was GE HR! They miscounted the number of interns they needed, had to fill one more spot, was I available to start on Monday? Hmm….$4.75/hour working nights and weekends at KMart, or $10/hour working 8-4:30 on weekdays only? Yes, please!
I ended up in a mobile office (trailer) smack dab in the middle of the plant with a couple CAD operators, a couple structural engineers, and their manager. The engineers were doing verification on all the overhead cranes in the plant - making sure that they could actually handle the loads that were painted on them. For most of the summer, my job was to walk around the plant, locate the cranes the engineers needed to verify, record various pieces of information, and report back to the engineers. Sometimes, I could do this with my feet planted firmly on the floor. Other times, I’d have to put on a safety harness, clip in, and get hoisted up on a man lift to get a good look.
The CAD guys were using some of my data to update structural drawings as well, and when one or the other of them wasn’t there, I’d get to do it as I’d taken a CAD class in high school.
They let me come back for Christmas break and keep working on it for a couple weeks. I spent one memorable day climbing the stairs outside a distillation tower in 15 degree weather (plus wind chill 60 feet up), ducking into the “shed” built around the tower at each landing to see if there were any cranes mounted there. Inside the shed, it was probably 70+ degrees, so the temperature swings made things interesting.
Right at the end of that first summer, I did a project for another engineer. As the end of my second year of college approached, I contacted him to see if he had anything available. He brought me on to digitize the original drawings of the plant. I had access to the vault holding the original drawings from 50 years of plant construction and evolution on paper vellum and it was my task to feed them through a monstrous scanner, bring the DXF files into AutoCad to clean up, and then save into a document management system which was kind of a novelty at the time. At an average of at least one hour per drawing, I didn’t make a lot of progress in the vault. But I got a system and a rhythm down, and I documented the process pretty thoroughly. My desk was more or less in a hallway, but it sure beat being out in the sun. I was right outside the main CAD “shop” for the plant, probably a dozen workstations set up with huge CRTs (still the 90s!) and people just cranking through structural, electrical, and plumbing drawings.
I must have done something right, because that same engineer came looking for me the next summer! He had moved on to another area of the plant and was working on a big Six Sigma project (this was still the 90s and GE loved that Six Sigma stuff) around the warehouse, shipping and inventory management. I honestly don’t recall what I was doing on the project, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with Excel. Lots and lots of Excel. The team also had several people who were in the GE Technical Leadership Program, which was a program for recent graduates (usually right out of college). They weren’t that much older than me, but at the time the gap seemed huge.
How It’s Relevant to Today
Working right upstairs from the warehouse and shipping department, I got some exposure to that part of the operation. A few weeks from the end of my summer, I built an Access database for the woman who kept track of all the rail traffic coming in and out of the plant (keeping track! Rail traffic! I thought this crowd loved dad jokes). Heck, I had just taken a database class in college, I could knock it out. Turns out…Access can get wonky sometimes. I did deliver her database right before leaving on vacation (I had a week of vacation, then maybe one or two more weeks of work, and I was done). But once I saw her putting it to use, I realized that it wasn’t working the way I thought it should. So I did the only logical thing.
I borrowed a laptop, put the database on a floppy disk (because you could do that back then!), and took it on vacation with me. I spent a not-insignificant portion of my vacation rebuilding about 75% of that database. The forms, the reports, the tables, you name it.
If I were to tell my wife that I did that, she’d just nod and say “sounds about right” because I hear about working too much on a regular basis.
You’d think that after having three pretty successful summer gigs at the same plant, with favorable reviews from my manager (otherwise, why would he have invited me back for that third summer), I’d have no trouble getting a job or at least a few interviews with the company, right? Well, you’d be partially right. I was able to finagle an on-campus interview despite my GPA being below their threshold, thanks to a good word put in by my manager and the experience on my resume. I even got a call from someone at HQ in Stamford, CT! But she only had a name & phone number with a “call this person” note attached. Once she heard what my GPA was, that was the end of it. As it turns out, that was probably for the best. Getting into that program probably would not have put me on the path to the career - and home life - that I have today.