By ANDREW MCGINN
For generations, men and women have joined the U.S. Navy, in large part, to see the world.
Oahu and Sicily.
Spain and Japan.
No. Really. Paton, Iowa.
For possibly the first time in the Navy’s 245-year history, a naval officer is on temporary assigned duty to this northern port city on East Buttrick Creek.
OK, that’s really overselling it, isn’t it?
Frankly, Paton (pop. 230) sells itself.
“It’s exotic in its own right. And beautiful,” said Lt. Claire Wilson, a 2013 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “I’m enjoying it.”
Wilson, 30, isn’t on official Navy business, however. With her seven years of active-duty service coming to an end in November, she is testing the waters — with Pentagon consent — for post-military life at the John Deere planter facility in Paton.
Wilson is the first to intern at the Greene County Deere plant through the Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which offers civilian training, apprenticeships and internships for military personnel during their last 180 days of service.
“You could call it a soft break,” she said, describing the program as a grace period between active-duty and civilian work.
A native of Boise, Idaho, currently stationed in San Diego as a meteorology and oceanography officer — a METOC, in Navy-speak — Wilson earned her MBA while on active-duty, and is interested in transitioning by year’s end to the business world. Her husband, a former surface warfare officer, recently left the Navy and was placed with a company in Des Moines.
Wilson’s search for an opportunity of her own within driving distance of her husband led her to Moline-based Deere, a partner in the SkillBridge program.
From there, Paton factory manager Katie Ehrke was presented with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“Here’s a free intern with a lot of great experience,” Ehrke said recently, recalling the offer. “Clearly, she’s got a lot of experience in operational readiness.”
As Wilson has found, there are parallels between running a factory and keeping a ship running.
The ability to adapt quickly and the need to be flexible are embedded in the cultures of both the military and manufacturing.
“We also have our own jargon and acronyms,” Ehrke noted.
Wilson was put right to work in early August helping John Deere better structure recruitment and training of its seasonal workforce — an annual undertaking that Ehrke said gives the company strategic leverage, but isn’t without headaches.
John Deere Paton — arguably the Fortune 500 company’s most remote outpost — has a core of full-time employees, according to Ehrke, that can be augmented with a fluctuating number of temps during peak production months from July to April.
But, as Ehrke explained, what’s tricky is the factory doesn’t know how many seasonal workers to hire until production orders start rolling in — and then, they need to be trained and out on the floor as quickly as possible, all while adhering to safety and quality standards.
Notice is short, to say the least.
“The key is speed,” Ehrke said. “We’re trying to find these people and get them onboarded quickly.”
Who better to tackle that assignment than an active-duty sailor?
“It’s been invaluable the experiences and exposures I’ve had,” said Wilson, who studied oceanography at the Naval Academy and went on to serve stateside and in Japan, going to sea aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship that was the site of a large fire this past summer in its home port of San Diego.
METOCs like Wilson pride themselves on being the Navy’s “physical battlespace authority.” In other words, there’s nary an airstrike that happens without the weather data they provide to the fleet and aviation units.
It also means that Wilson could probably participate in weather talk with the locals across the road at the Paton Pit Stop and leave them in shock and awe.
Wilson is working in Paton through early November, at which point she’ll report back to San Diego to officially be discharged.
Paton may be small, but the local Deere factory builds the world’s largest planters — 36-row (and bigger) planters that might best be described to outsiders as Nimitz-class implements.
Without a contingent of temporary workers, Ehrke said, there might always be a risk of involuntary layoffs in the offseason because of fluctuating order volumes. During peak production, the factory may need to bring on anywhere from five to 20 temporary workers — but finding up to 20 available people in rural Iowa with a manufacturing background, without jobs, especially in recent years of low unemployment, can be a challenge.
The local Deere factory has also had need to hire more full-time employees as of late to counteract COVID-19 and higher rates of absenteeism, she said. New hires typically come from the ranks of past temps.
“It just puts more responsibility on us for on-the-job training,” said Ehrke, who is soon to be relocated back to the Quad Cities. “We take a lot of that on ourselves.”
Ehrke said that Wilson may be the first intern John Deere Paton has received through the Pentagon, but hopefully not the last.