Words and photos by Kyle Rancourt
Last week, the daughter of a member of our product development team joined her mother at work for the day. As part of the experience, the teenage girl spent a couple of hours observing and lending a hand in our finishing room, where one of the veteran finishing team members said to her, “make sure you go to college so you don’t have to work in a factory.” When I heard this, I experienced an immediate and intense gut reaction, “what’s wrong with working in a factory?” I said. “What does a college degree guarantee you?”
The truth is, we have trouble finding, training and retaining young people for this work. Most of our craftspeople learned the trade from a family member, and those that didn’t, came to us after all other avenues for employment had failed or disappointed them. However, once a person joins our team, they tend to stay. Almost all of those that left at one point or another for seemingly brighter horizons returned within two or three years. Our turnover is so low, in fact, that of the 61 employees that work at Rancourt & Co., very few of them have been with us for less than a decade.
After retirement or other life changes take our craftspeople away, many of them feel great nostalgia for their shoemaking days. A museum has actually been erected in my home of Lewiston, Maine with a permanent shoe-workers exhibit – the trade has left that much of an indelible mark on the members of my community. Yet, young people avoid us like the plague. I can’t help but think that this irrational opposition to factory work has – and is – exacerbating the death of manufacturing in the United States. How will I guarantee a future for Rancourt & Co. if I can’t find people who want to make our product?
In some ways, I have always been aware that factory work is considered inferior to office, administrative or sales positions. But why? Ninety percent of the workers in our factory are truly “craftspeople.” They have been trained in a skilled trade that requires concentration, experience, and passion. They are paid a livable wage from day one, and have opportunities for raises, benefits, and paid holidays and vacations, all while further developing their skills and experience. Many own their own homes, vehicles and other assets not afforded to urbanites working desk jobs. And, most importantly, they are coming to work each day to make something; something beautiful, something that our customers will cherish, and, in some cases, have for the rest of their lives. How many of us can say that we create something beautiful each day? Shoemaking is an art and a craft, but we’re also making something that is highly functional and plays a role in our everyday lives. So, again, why is factory work considered inferior?
Perhaps it harkens back to the days of assembly line workers, laboring away for long hours in sweatshop conditions for a pittance. But this is no longer the reality in America – or, at least not in Maine. Factory workers and craftspeople are the backbone of this country. They make things that we can sell around the world and say, “Look, this is what our people can make. This is what hard work and a commitment to tradition and never sacrificing quality can get you.” We are proud of the Made in USA label, and we are proud of the beautiful things we build. Now, it’s time to also be proud of the people and jobs that create these things.
Literally born into the Maine shoe business, Kyle Rancourt chose to join the family trade and launch Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters with his father in 2009. With a passion for quality and tradition driving him, Kyle strives to spread the gospel of American craftsmanship. When not in the factory in Maine, you might find him putting miles on the road on two wheels.