Not your grandma’s yarn factory
Article 3/11 in the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce written series by United Way of Southwest Virginia.
June 2, 2017 (Bristol, VA – Washington County) – What comes to mind when you hear “yarn factory”? Actually, let’s ask Brandon Turner what he thought before he worked for one.
“I’m from this area and I went to school with someone for years whose dad worked at ‘the yarn factory’ – that’s what he called Universal Fibers. Every time he told me that ‘his daddy worked in the yarn factory’, I pictured in my mind grandmas knitting. Now that I work here, it’s so funny to me. Most of the community probably doesn’t know what all what we do here,” said Turner.
Turner is not alone. If the younger generation is unaware of the diversity of jobs within companies here in Southwest Virginia, how can we expect them to stay? Let’s start there.
What does Universal Fibers do, and what types of jobs are there within the company?
Universal Fibers makes tons of specialized yarn to be used in high-performance products like parachutes, sports apparel, and flooring. What makes their yarn – more commonly called “fiber” in their niche industry – unique is the coloring process. The melted-down solution is colored before it’s even made into fiber, so when the fiber is produced, the color is actually part of the fiber. For a visual comparison, Universal’s fibers are like carrots (the same color all the way through) and their competitors’ fibers are like radishes (colored on the outside but still white on the inside). As you can see, it’s not your grandma’s yarn.
So, there are no knitting grandmas, and even though it is a large manufacturing facility, there are no dirty, crowded, dangerous floors inside, either.
Located in the industrial park in Washington County, Virginia, the company employs about 530 people, who all work in a clean, safe, air-conditioned, comfortable environment, whether they are in an office, the lobby, the conference room, or the factory.
“The dirty, dangerous, crowded environment is just the stigma associated with working in a factory,” said Tim Lawson, Human Resources Manager for Universal Fibers. “And we are constantly trying to shift mindsets. That’s one of our biggest challenges.”
Lawson also explained that the production flow is not typical either. He said, “Some fiber plants would run one, two, or three products, and that’s a pretty old school model. We have more color changes per day than we actually have the number of machines for, so we are continually changing product and color. That’s very challenging, and it takes a high level of expertise to go from one color to another color on the same machine; a lot of people are needed to make that happen.”
Brendan McSheehy, Jr., Vice President of Innovation, Sustainability, and IP for Universal Fibers said, “Many people don’t realize the variety of jobs within the company and how many people are needed throughout every step of the process. You have your actual manufacturing processes, and then you have the maintenance group that is there to support the manufacturing group. We operate 24/7, and if the machines are not running (right), we can’t manufacture the product, which is why there is a support side to everything we do. We have a whole slew of professional services that contribute – customer service, innovation, product and process development, marketing, sales, quality, accounting, and information technology. All of those have to come together with the manufacturing side. That’s why it’s so important that our associates can problem-solve, communicate, and get along with everyone they work with.”
Universal Fibers employee Brandon Turner exemplifies all three of those qualities. Turner, a 35-year-old Southwest Virginian, has been with Universal Fibers since 1997, when his “knitting grandmas” theory was busted after his interview for an entry-level job in the manufacturing process.
“When I got the entry-level job and had orientation, I was told, ‘Do every job you can.’ So I did.”
He kept his first job for a few years before working several other jobs on the manufacturing side of the process. Those jobs in the manufacturing process at Universal Fibers are closer to what you might expect in a traditional “factory”, including positions in logistics, purchasing, handling, coloring, extrusion, spinning, texturing, and quality.
Turner said, “As I worked in those jobs throughout the manufacturing process, I watched other employees – like technicians – do their jobs. That’s when I fell in love with the support side of the process.”
A surprising percentage of Universal Fibers’ workforce is comprised of associates on the support side. Positions on the support side are necessary for the company to run smoothly and include dozens of professional services jobs like the ones described by McSheehy.
“You are always trying to find that job you’re happy doing because it makes it easy to go to work,” said Turner. “I was happy doing every job that I’ve had here, but when I finally got the process technician job after several years and moved over to the support side, I began to feel like I was really engaged. I felt like I could troubleshoot and bridge gaps between the operators and the engineers. Then, I saw an opening in IT that also involved a different kind of troubleshooting, so I put in for that because I’ve always loved computers, and I got the job.”
And now that Turner is in IT, he address problems throughout the entire company. He can relate to the employees he’s helping because he’s been there.
Lawson, Human Resources Manager, said, “I don’t know many corporations out there where you can seriously come in the door, start from scratch, bounce around and learn the process, and gain the skills to move up to a position like that.”
That adaptability and curiosity required to bounce around and learn the process is a trait McSheehy agrees is needed in every organization – especially in manufacturing. “Manufacturing by its nature resists change, because the definition for quality is uniformity. But we need people on both sides of the process – manufacturing and support – who are willing to think differently. We are not the factory that makes black Model T’s.”
Adaptability is an important component of innovation, McSheehy’s area of expertise. Universal doesn’t just innovate products – but also systems and jobs within the company that support the products. There have been many cases where someone at Universal Fibers has seen the value an individual could add to the organization, so they’ve brought that person on as an intern or employee.
For example, five years ago, Logan Pensinger was a senior mechanical engineering major at Virginia Tech. He called Universal Fibers to ask a few questions for a research project, and was amazed to find that the company in his hometown employed individuals from a variety of professions. His questions led to a larger conversation with McSheehy and then to full-time employment by Universal Fibers, where Pensinger has led a wide variety of Innovation Projects, including #D Printing filament. He now holds several patents and has acquired expertise in conducting and publishing Life Cycle Assessments.
Universal Fibers is proud that they offer a variety of good jobs to people in Southwest Virginia, and they are proud of the people they employ. Turner and Pensinger are great examples of taking non-traditional paths to get to two different positions. They’re also great examples of finding successful employment by remaining in or returning to Southwest Virginia.
“We want the next generation to know what careers are here – that you can come here with a high school diploma or a college degree. We want them to work in a career they love near their families and communities,” Lawson said, “and we want them to have a positive impact on Southwest Virginia.”
Article 3/11. The written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series was created by United Way of Southwest Virginia. The introductory article was released in May 2017, with nine articles to be released online on the first and third Sundays from May-September, and published in various print publications across the region. Each of the nine articles will explore current challenges in Southwest Virginia’s workforce and showcase the valuable members of the workforce in Southwest Virginia. The series will share the stories of local workers and discuss topics that specifically affect our workforce in Southwest Virginia such as local livable-wage jobs, local innovation, the value of working at an early age, the uniqueness of the community college system, and combining passion with skill – just to name a few. Then, our last article will provide an overview of the actions being taken to bridge the gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region to strengthen the workforce of tomorrow. To keep up with the full series of articles, or for more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia’s initiatives to equip tomorrow’s workforce, visit UnitedWaySWVA.org.
About United Way of Southwest Virginia
United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life. Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change. With a footprint that covers almost 15% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia serves Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise, and the cities of Galax and Norton. For more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia, visit UnitedWaySWVA.org.