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After 40 years on the job, time to make way for a successor

South Boston News
Faye Beck smooths out a cutting die at Bohler-Uddeholm, a precision task essential to plant operations. / April 18, 2013
Watching her buff and polish donut-shaped pieces of steel, you’d never know Faye Beck is responsible for keeping her workplace running.

And has been doing so, reliably, for 40 years.

“I try not to think of it that way because that’s scary,” said Beck with a quick laugh that seems to come out whenever she finds herself at the center of attention.

Beck is a die shop technician with Bohler-Uddeholm Corporation in South Boston, and if the title seems modest, it matches her workplace setting, a side office set off from a cavernous shell building where machines noisily spit out metallic wire and bars.

The South Boston Bohler-Uddeholm plant is a producer of specialty metals, giving it a small but important place within the Austrian-based multinational giant. The South Boston plant employs 38, a pittance compared to sister production facilities in Sweden and Brazil that have up to 2,000 workers each.

Those plants are giant steel mills. The South Boston facility, set off in the woods from Eastover Drive, takes a small portion of the company’s output and fabricates alloys to meet the needs of niche customers — businesses that sell everything from hip replacements to dental hygiene equipment to bandsaws and industrial tools. Each customer requires a certain type of finished product, and the South Boston plant produces a wide variety.

On the Bohler-Uddeholm shop floor, machines slice up bars and carve out wire to precise tolerances, taking the guesswork out of the manufacturing process. It’s been the plant’s role going back to the days when it did business as CK Company, the name many people still use for the local operation.

Beck was one of the first people hired after the South Boston plant was built in 1972. Prior to that, she had worked as a weaver for Burlington Industries in Halifax. “I hated that job,” she said.

The idea of going to work for a steel mill was intriguing to the North Carolina native, now married to electrician Marvin Beck and looking forward to retirement later this year. Back then, though, Faye Crews was a woman in her early 20s, itching to get out of the mill and to try something new.

She attended training sessions at the old high school — now Halifax County Middle School — to learn what she needed to know about metallurgy and the company’s industrial processes. Back then, she was one of a handful of women who went through the training. Today, she is the only female at work on the Bohler-Uddeholm shop floor.

Her job, quite simply, is to refurbish metal dies as they wear out — a frequent occurrence, with each piece under constant stress as raw wire and metal bar courses through the plant’s cutting machines. Wire is jammed through an opening in a die and comes out in the shape of an oversized Slinkee. To keep the machines functioning, Beck must smooth out and polish dies for constant reuse — and as the orders start to pile up, her day can become very hectic.

At busy moments, she will dart back and forth among four machines, polishing and refurbishing dies. It’s a job that demands precision and, at times, speed. Beck loves it.

“Everybody’s not suited for this job,” she said, although she finds the controlled juggling act suited to her personality.

“A guy told me I made the job look easy. I said, ‘Well, I’ve worked her for 40 years, if I didn’t make the job look easy, they ought to fire me,’” she laughed.

Marvin Morris, an executive with the South Boston plant, says that’s the furthest thing from his mind with Beck’s retirement coming up later this year.

“Thank goodness she’s been a very loyal employee,” said Morris. “We can’t afford for her not to be here.”

Beck is the lone employee at the die shop, although others at the plant can help out in a pinch. She hasn’t been the solitary die shop technician throughout her long career, although she is at the moment.

“We’re having some challenges trying to find someone to fill that role,” said Morris. “It’s very precise work.”

In some respects, Beck embodies a paradox of modern manufacturing: as automation lessens the need for workers, it also puts a premium on those with the skills required to keep the machines running. Companies like Bohler-Uddeholm are constantly becoming more efficient, but some jobs continue to require the human touch.

That’s fine with Beck: she relishes the work, and enjoys the back-and-forth with her male co-workers (“we’re like a family”), although she allows that she isn’t as quick as she used to be after 40 years on the job, most of that time spent on her feet.

“It’s a lot of precision and it’s tedious, and when things are really busy around here, you’ve got to be able to manage your time and hustle back and forth between machines,” she said. The key to her success? “I’m just glad God blessed me to have the health to work this long.”

It’s time, however, to move on and let someone else shoulder the duties of the die shop. Her husband has retired and spends his days in the garden of their home near Halifax, and now she’s ready to join him, as well as pursue other interests. Among her favorites: traveling with her sister.

“Marvin likes to tinker in the yard and leave the socializing and the traveling to me and my sister,” she said with her characteristic giggle.

After four decades, with retirement looming, “I’m secure with it.”

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