I spent the first part of my holiday break unwinding by watching movies. I intended to go out skating, visit downtown Chicago, and generally get out of the house during the second part of the break, but the temperature dropped down to single digits; I ended up watching more movies.
One of the more enjoyable movies I watched was "Extract," written and directly by Mike Judge, the genius behind Beavis and Butthead and the cult film "Office Space." In this flick about the almost destruction of an owner's flavor extract company, Judge puts his critical lens on the world of manufacturing, just as he did the cubicle world in "Office Space." His portrayal of workers in that manufacturing plant is comedic gold, but also reinforces the awful stereotypes that most people have about manufacturing work.
If anyone needs a reminder of what the metal fabricating community is up against in trying to attract a new generation of workers to the field, he or she should watch this movie.
Just consider some of the characters. Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) walks around the shop like he owns it, until he loses a testicle in a shop accident and formulates a plot, with the help of a femme fatale, to sue his employer for a boatload of money. (Did you know Hitler also may have been monorchism? My minor in history from Louisiana State University has not been wasted.) Mary (Beth Grant) believes no one works as hard as she does and lets everyone know about it; if she doesn't feel like someone is pulling her weight, she stops doing her job as a final product inspector, which leads to the injury. Rory (T.J. Miller) is the forklift driver that really wants to be a rock star and has no desire to improve driving skills; his commitment to his five bands and not to his job doesn't help Step out. Brian (J.K. Simmons) is the front-office guy who holds nothing but contempt for his workers, going so far as to refer to everyone on the shop floor as "dinkus."
Jason Bateman, who plays the company owner Joel, is a nice enough guy. The movie really swirls around his relationships with his bored wife (a pool boy is involved), his injured employee Step, and a con woman looking for a big score. The manufacturing setting is not integral to moving the comic plot along, but you see enough to realize that it's the perfect source to cultivate these dimwitted characters.
Obviously, elements of these characters probably exist in many manufacturing shops, but there's no way the economy would allow for a company to employ a tent full of these freaks and remain open. In fact, most of the shop floor workers I encounter are conscientious and hard-working; of course, I get invited only to the well-run shops.
The only character that really hit home for me was the clueless manager. I can't tell you the weird vibe I get walking a shop floor with a company manager who doesn't acknowledge people by name or at least a head nod. Those types of people are real peaches at parties.
That's going to be my message in 2010: Let people know that metal fabricating is a field worth pursuing, not just for the kids who can't pass Calculus 1, but also for those who have a creative mind and hate sitting behind a desk. Many shops already do this by inviting groups into their shops and interacting with local industrial technology classes, and they should be commended. But this has to be a much larger-scale effort if people want manufacturing to be admired as an occupation of choice and not ridiculed by evil Hollywood moguls.
(Editor's Note: I liked the movie. I also realize that Mike Judge's portrayal of this manufacturing company relied on extreme stereotypes for laughs. The film provides a great opportunity to be entertained and to learn something. For example, I'll never walk into another metal fabricating shop without wearing a protective cup.)