Due North by Kyle Rancourt, Vol. 1

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.

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  • Pedram

    I went to college, studied engineering and have one of those “preferred” desk jobs as you described. After 4 years of this, I find myself dreaming of starting a company that makes something I am deeply invested in. I dream of creating my own brand and making everything with my own hands. My hobbies reflect that desire, but what can a few hours a week compare with the 40-60 hours I work for pay?

    I think that you hit the nail on the head. There is something in our society that looks down upon work done with ones hands. This negative connotation ignores that there is so much satisfaction in creating something, especially something of quality and beauty, as a profession.

  • Lisa Meservier

    Kyle as a former shoe worker I feel I need to respond to some of your questions. I used to work at Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corp. With your father for 10 years before that I have worked in several shoe factories each of them for no more than 3-5 years because they closed to go overseas for cheaper labor. Because that is the reputation of many manufacturers that have produced many fine shoes and other products in the U.S., these former companies have destroyed the reputation of manufacturing jobs as being a secure and financially safe job. Many manufacturers in the past have taken away bonuses and other benefits so that they can increase their profits. I am glad that you pay your employees a decent wage and I hope other employers in manufacturing do the same. If they do that and word gets around maybe the manufacturing jobs will be more appealing to the young. Even if they have a college degree! 🙂 Wishing you continued success!

    Lisa Meservier

  • Cory

    Keep up the great work, Kyle, and the people will come. There are a myriad ways of finding qualified workers — or training the best people for the job. I’m sure you have tried or will try many of these ideas. For example, you could work with local high schools or community colleges to set up an apprenticeship program at your factory.
    I love that you (and other manufacturers) continue to make your products in the U.S.; these are the companies that tend to get my money these days. You’re likely to get some of my money soon. Your company’s leather goods are beautiful. Continued success to you, sir.

  • Shane

    I feel a large part of the problem is in how we present career prospects to students, particularly in high school. I went to school in a relatively rural area during the mid 2000’s, and I remember the belief being that you either a) went to college, b) joined the military, or c) worked at a gas station. There never seemed to be a middle ground between continuing your academics or getting shipped off overseas. And I went to school with plenty of people that didn’t want to do either, but were good with their hands and could be precise with their work when they wanted to, but I’m not sure anyone told them, “Maybe you should learn a trade.”

    There’s definitely a certain stigma attached to manual labor, which is really unfortunate, considering the quality of work companies such as yours produces. I look forward to the next part of this series, and plan to purchase a pair of your ranger mocs in the near future.

  • Bill from PDX

    Hi Kyle,

    Ever since meeting you and your dad a few years ago while visiting family in the area, I’ve been a huge fan of your company. I’m very proud to own the shoes that I’ve purchased from you and I tell people about your company (and your shoes of course) as often as possible.

    One recommended piece of reading: “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B Crawford. It’s a great read and I think it ties into many of the questions you raise.

    Wishing you much continued success,
    Bill in Portland, OR

  • Ted

    Awesome article and content Brad!

  • Mitchell

    maybe if it wasnt in maine…

  • Ethan

    I agree with the comment by Lisa Meservier, and just like Pedram I too am an engineer with a desk job. While there are days that I would rather be doing other things by and large I am thankful for my job. I spent 4 summers in a row working in different factories. Two years on the assembly line and two years as an intern. My dad also spent 37 years working at a Goodyear plant. I think it is great that there are factory jobs out there like the ones at Rancourt, but I believe the majority of the factory jobs have bad reputations because they deserve them. I know from personal experience how the people are treated in most situations, the low wages, the constant reduction in benefits, etc. Most people who work in factories have zero passion for what they do. They do not consider themselves craftspeople or artisans. Many of them retire at the age of 60 and bitter, not looking back with nostalgia. I agree something needs to be done to change peoples perception of factory jobs, but I think that will be difficult to do until the leaders of the companies and the lawmakers changes directions from where our country has been heading the last few decades. Until then people like Kyle Rancourt and Rancourt & Co. will hopefully serve as beacons of light.

  • M.G.

    Great article and great comments! Kyle, I recently discovered your company and I applaud the work you and your family are doing to create beautiful products – and jobs – in New England. (I’m already planning to get a pair for my husband and myself!). I think Cory’s idea of some sort of apprenticeship, or perhaps internship program with the local community college, could be a good way to open younger people’s eyes to your career alternative. College, or even grad school, is not always worth the (ever increasing) student loan burden. Keep speaking to the blogosphere – people are listening!

  • Nancy Rheinhart

    Kyle, We met on the flight back from Narita to Mpls. I enjoyed visiting with you and learning the background story of your family’s company. You are an excellent ambassador. There was an article in our local paper that addressed the issue of not having a pool of ready and trained individuals to fill the many jobs available in the trades. Local companies have instituted internship programs with trade/technical institutions, often guaranteeing a position upon graduation. I look forward to your trunk show in the Minneapolis area. Best wishes and continued success!