Making cars is, no doubt about it, hard work. It’s hot, it’s loud, and you’re on your feet your entire shift. That’s nobody’s idea of the perfect job.
But it’s also, as any employee of an auto plant can tell you, complex work. A car is far more intricate than people realize, and it takes hundreds of hands (and even more hours) to put one car on the street. We all know how important it is for the process to be flaw-proof: one mistake and a car can have a serious problem. Still, it’s difficult to appreciate that intellectually. Recently, GM and the United Auto Workers invited a group of reporters to get on the practice line used to train workers at the plants.
How’d the scribes do? Well…let’s just say that they should stick to journalism.
The practice line is pretty simple: you assemble a plywood car. But, if you want to work on actual cars, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Specifically, you have to assemble eighteen of the plywood roadsters, and you have to have absolutely no safety incidents and no defects. You can’t get hit by a car or accidentally glue your sleeve to a door; those have the potential to kill in real life. Oh, and it’s a fully-paced line, meaning there’s absolutely no time whatsoever to dawdle: you’re expected to turn out one car for every minute you’re on the line.
Oh, and did we mention this can involve complex tasks, like welding, depending on your job?
The journalists didn’t meet any of those goals. Oh boy, did they not meet any of those goals.
Take safety: there were 22 accidents in the twenty minute stretch of time. Yes, more than an accident per minute. Even worse were the defects: twenty-five defects, or, yes, more than one defect per minute. (We bet the auto insurance companies are pretty happy that these guys were just part of an experiment)
The worst of all, though, was the production. In twenty minutes, the reporters only turned out thirteen cars, meaning that not only were they behind on production, they were going to have to come back on Saturday for unpaid overtime to fix the defects and build the remaining five cars.
Why did GM and the UAW do all this, aside from the fact that it’s pretty funny to watch people scramble over a production line? GM is reopening an auto plant in Michigan, and both the UAW and GM wanted to emphasize something to the general public: building cars is not as easy as it sounds, and definitely not as easy as it looks.
The plant reopening has been controversial, but one thing that GM and the UAW can agree on is that workers building cars are doing complex and difficult manual labor, and doing it for $14 an hour.
So, the next time you look at a car assembly line and think to yourself, “Hey, I can do that. Anybody can do that. Why do these guys get paid so much?”, just remember what the GM experiment demonstrated: this work is so hard that a group of experienced, intelligent, college-educated professionals couldn’t do it right the first time.