Oconomowoc – At 4:30 a.m., a plant supervisor pulls into the barren parking lot of Oconomowoc Manufacturing Corp. to open the factory for another day of work. As usual, Arline Ruhs is waiting for him in her 1988 Impala.
Ruhs rises each weekday before 3. She has breakfast, packs a lunch and snack and does the dishes because “you’ll never know if you’re going to get home or not.” Then she ices her lower back and waits until it’s time to drive to work.
Her shift begins at 6, but Ruhs starts at 5. She also works an hour of overtime past the normal quitting time. And because business has been good lately, she has been coming in on Saturdays.
What’s most remarkable about Ruhs is not her dedication, punctuality or 35 ½ years on the job. It’s that she is 85 years old and shows no interest in retiring. Her managers can’t even get her to take time off. She has nearly 11 weeks of accrued vacation.
Arline Ruhs is an extraordinary example of what experts say will become more common. As Americans are living longer and are able to contribute longer, more will be active longer in the workplace.
Last week, disregarding the “R” in AARP, the American Association for Retired Persons Foundation launched a nationwide employment initiative to help people 50 and older hook up with job skills assessments, training resources and 13 selected employers committed to hiring older workers. The objectives are to help mature job seekers and promote the value of older workers.
“It’s recognizing something our society hasn’t done a good job at recognizing, and that’s the wealth of knowledge and experience and skill sets that older adults have,” says Stacy Barnes, deputy director of the Wisconsin Geriatric Education Center, a consortium of academic and health organizations based at Marquette University.
Behind the AARP campaign is the projected drop-off of available workers as baby boomers start turning 60 next year. But there’s also a growing sense that work provides meaningful activity beyond a paycheck and that more retirement-age Americans want to be working.
In Wisconsin, 21,200 people 75 and older – or 6.6% of that age group – were working in 2003, according to Census Bureau estimates. Among those 85 and older, about 3,200 – or 4.3% – were in the work force.
Even if those percentages stay the same, the older population is growing so fast that by 2020, there would be more than 26,000 Wisconsin workers 75 and older and more than 5,100 workers 85 and older, based on state projections.
‘Something to do’
Ruhs shows no passion for what she does for a living.
“It’s something to do. That’s all,” she says. “Some days you like it better than others.”
She says she started working here because after 20 years standing all day working at dry cleaners, her feet were callused and sore. She wanted a job where she could sit, and she couldn’t think of where else someone would hire her at age 50.
Ruhs sits on a worn cushion on a stool that lets her reach the turntable of a machine where she makes ball bearings. The sharp smell of cutting oil permeates the plant. There is a din of discordant clicking, buzzing and humming from machines.
Oconomowoc Manufacturing has been making bearings since 1964 and sells them for use in sliding doors and windows, conveyor belts, furniture and appliances. Last year, the company sold about $8 million worth of bearings at an average price of between 60 and 75 cents apiece.
Depending on which of the company’s 1,000 varieties of bearings they’re making, Ruhs and a partner produce 10 to 20 a minute. She figures she makes from 4,000 to 10,000 bearings per shift. Her supervisor figures she’s made more than 24 million in her career. So far. Terry Ludeman, chief labor economist for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, says for some older workers there’s a point at which their family is dispersed and friends are gone.
“Suddenly, the most important activity you have is the work setting,” Ludeman says. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we see more and more of that.”
Barnes, of the Wisconsin Geriatric Education Center, agrees.
There’s a use-it-or-lose-it mantra in geriatrics, Barnes says, and research supports the notion that staying active physically, mentally and socially helps slow down the inevitable process of deterioration. There’s also evidence that work provides a sense of purpose, she says, which tends to make older workers more optimistic than early retirees.
Barnes doesn’t know Ruhs, but told of her work, Barnes says: “She’s definitely not a typical 85-year-old. That is something she should be proud of. She probably is increasing her own life expectancy.”
Perhaps nearly as remarkable as Ruhs’ durability is the fact that her employer is still around. The sort of repetitive work that Ruhs performs exemplifies the manufacturing functions being lost to automation and low-cost labor abroad.
In fact, across the aisle from her machine are two automated machines through which one operator can make bearings at a pace three or four times the rate of Ruhs and her partner.
Automation is useful for high-volume orders, explains Kyle Stoehr, president of Oconomowoc Manufacturing. But the company has survived by focusing on customization and quality, he says, both of which are served by manual machine operators such as Ruhs. Sales are up by more than 40% over the past two years, and the company’s export prospects may be expanding beyond Canada thanks to favorable exchange rates.
Stoehr, who at 30 was born five years into Ruhs’ employment here, said: “I don’t know what formed up her work ethic a long time ago, but that’s certainly the biggest thing . . . she’s tenacious when she is here. If you’re going to work on a machine with her, she’s going to drive the pace. And she’s not going to tolerate excessive breaks or mistakes.”
Ruhs shows no signs of frailty. She’s restricted to lifting 10 to 15 pounds after an angioplasty nine years ago, but she says sometimes she’ll lift more. She has high blood pressure and has cut back on cheese to manage her cholesterol. Aside from some arthritis in her back, she considers herself pretty fit.
“As long as her safety’s not a concern, we’ll have a place for her doing what she’s doing,” Stoehr says.
Jam-packed with experience
Martha Artiles, chief diversity officer for Manpower Inc., says the nation’s largest staffing company teaches its managers the virtues of mature workers, including their loyalty, their work ethic and attention to quality.
“They come jam-packed with a lot of work and life experience that employers can really tap into,” Artiles says. Older workers tend to have lower absentee and turnover rates, and they’re great examples to younger workers, Artiles says.
“An experienced worker, when used correctly, returns the value 100 times over, in both productivity and professionalism,” says Jeff Hynes, co-chairman of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association.
In his own Wauwatosa-based practice, Hynes has seen a burgeoning caseload of older workers targeted for discharge by employers zealous to cut costs. He says he’s encouraged by initiatives such as those at AARP, which includes Glendale-based Manpower as one of its featured employers.
‘I get bored if I stay home’
Ruhs has lived her whole life around Oconomowoc. She grew up on a dairy farm three miles from town. She met her husband, Gerhard, at a church dance. They built a house three miles on the other side of town and then another that she now rents out.
She and her husband were married six months shy of 50 years when he died eight years ago last week. They have two daughters, both of whom are married and live in the Madison area.
During the morning break, between bites of her banana, Ruhs talks about her life outside work. She talks about her daughters and their families. She talks about her garden and the rabbits that vex her.”I get bored if I stay home,” she says. “Saturday and Sunday, my bones ache more than when I work. It’s the exercise of bending and up and down. At home you just sit around.”
Ruhs says she doesn’t really think about anything while she works. She has to concentrate, she says. She doesn’t want to make a mistake.
Now, though, she’s distracted. She keeps looking at her watch. Her break is nearly over. It’s time to go back to work. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel