Getting a working man’s PhD

Those are the sounds that greet me at 10:59 p.m. as the buzzer sounds and I step out onto the floor of a car parts factory in Barrie, Ont.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Enhhhhhh.


Those are the sounds that greet me at 10:59 p.m. as the buzzer sounds and I step out onto the floor of a car parts factory in Barrie, Ont. The time is early 2012. I’m all ready to start the night shift, with ear plugs, a pair of gloves and work boots. There are two 15-minute breaks and a half hour “lunch” break between me and 7 a.m.

My bachelor’s degree didn’t get me far, so I’d obtained a college diploma in television news and used it to score a couple unpaid internships in Washington, D.C. There I bumped into characters like Herman Cain, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the former prime minister of New Zealand. However my journalistic escapades hadn’t translated into related work back in Canada, and eating was still something I was quite fond of, so there I was, ready to do what I was told and watch the minimum wage cheques roll in.

I’d done physical work at a number of jobs in the past and now I was back “working on a working man’s PhD,” to quote the best country song of the 1990s (maybe ever?).

(If you want a cram course in reality/ You get yourself a working man’s PhD)

Boom. Boom. Boom. Vrroom. Beeeep.

The pulse is like a heavy beat coming from a nightclub, except in this nightclub you press buttons on massive hydraulic press machines the size of small houses and wheel away bins full of parts and steel scrap.

My first night I press buttons on a machine that takes steel pucks and notches them into a clutch component. The press comes down and hits the puck with enormous force when you press the button, but although it feels like you’re playing the claw candy grabber vending machine game, unlike the game it never misses, imprinting perfect, triangular teeth. And you don’t get to just leave when you get tired of pressing the two buttons after an hour.

A buzzer sounds and workers, many of them temp workers hired via staffing agencies like me, crowd into the lunch room joking and talking. Did you notice —- isn’t back? The place is mainly run on temps who can be let go with a brief phone call the night before, as staffing needs fluctuate.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Clanggg. Beep.

Because you’d better believe the presses keep rolling, manned and womaned by people who take offset breaks.

Several months later I was laid off and then rehired to work in quality control, checking the rectitude of parts that had been red-flagged as having potential issues. It was a bit quieter and slower-paced, being in another area of the factory with less presses. I met a friend who shared my interest in talking about things like reincarnation and free will versus predestination.

Despite the low paycheques factory work is oddly reassuring with a set purpose and strict timelines, a helluva workout. Some joking and conversation in between stacking crates of freshly-minted clutch pieces, ABS brake cups or boxes of Honda Civic interior roof racks. The best thing about the work, though, is the people.

In the two departments I worked in I had great bosses who were encouraging and upbeat. At Christmas our boss gave us all Christmas cards.

Then there was Tony, originally from Newfoundland, if memory serves. In a more senior supervisory position Tony’d often be on a forklift negotiating 20-tonne rolls of steel onto the press loader.

“Move! Out of the way!” Beep beep. “Thank you!” he shouts from under a bristle baton moustache. Another time he warns me of the immense danger of not being conscious around the rolls of steel or trying to manually push the steel sheet when it isn’t loading quite right.

“I’ve seen a guy have his arm cut off who did that!” he warned me. I could almost see the blood spurting.

Weeks later while putting on his workboots in the locker room, my quality control friend engaged Tony in conversation and the topic of the difficulty of making a living came up. My friend said he agreed it was hard but he was hoping for the best and trying to stay optimistic.

“Good f—ing luck with that!” Tony said, closing up his locker and heading out onto the floor.

We laughed about it quite a bit, but now that I think of it Tony might have a point.


One night I was using a hard metal rake to settle a pile of scrap in a metal bin. A 30-something chap walked up. He always ran a machine of some kind off in the corner, wore a golfing cap and made wry comments about life and relationships on smoke breaks. He stopped briefly beside the churning press I was working next to and winked.

“I bet you never thought you’d be raking scrap metal into a bin at 3 a.m. in the morning, did you?” he said. I couldn’t help but agree.

Two months later I’d be writing words on a blackboard in a small village in the Republic of Georgia, after signing up for a volunteer opportunity to teach English.

To explore the Hallmark card side of it, I guess that’s the thing I “learned” from working in a car parts factory and the people I met: You just never know where life will take you.

On that note I’m moving on from my temporary position here at the Citizen as Lexi Bainas takes back over as arts and entertainment reporter. Welcome back, Lexi and all the best to my Citizen colleagues! Adios amigos.

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