Kiefer, who worked at a factory in high school and during college, stuck with what she knew. And these days, she does what is known as "touch-up" work at Astro-Med.
The circuit boards, after assembly by the Samsung robot, go through an eight-zone oven that cements the components in place. There are a few pieces that can't abide the heat and Kiefer affixes them afterward by hand, with the aid of a magnifying glass, a microscope, and a soldering iron.
She also adds any missing parts detected by an "automatic optical inspection" system that does the job three or four workers once did — a camera zooming over a board, comparing it to the ideal, and highlighting any omissions on screen in a matter of seconds.
Kiefer's work is specialized; to call it "unskilled labor" would be unfair. At a previous job, she tells me, she used engineers' specs to build new, prototype circuit boards. But even she acknowledges her limits. "I like the work I do now," Kiefer tells me. "But I wouldn't mind growing."
Twenty years ago, someone in her position — an assembler who showed some gumption — had a relatively clear path to advancement. But it's not so clear anymore. The technical expertise required for higher-level work can no longer be picked up with a bit of on-the-job education.
No, the most technical jobs go to the highly trained, to workers like Alex Lamake, 25, who is looking the part of the computer geek the day I meet him: close-cropped hair, a black George Carlin t-shirt.
He says he grew up tinkering with electronics, building his own computers. "I remember ripping apart my parents' old Atari," he says, "and trying to fix it."
He spent two years in an electronics vocational program at Coventry High School, working afternoons at Astro-Med. And after he started working full-time, he devoted three years of nights and weekends to additional training at Community College Rhode Island.
These days he tests completed data recorders — running through an eight- to 20-page protocol, depending on the model — and fixes broken devices sent in by customers. "That's my strong point," he says, "troubleshooting."
His training, he says, is central to his work; the technical language in the testing protocols, alone, is indecipherable for the unschooled. And the company requires its technicians to have an associate's degree or better.
Kiefer, the touch-up worker, says that unlike some others, she has the time for the sort of training Lamake has undergone; no kids, she tells me, just two dogs. But paying for it could be an issue.
Her husband's old employer, electrical specialist Leviton, shut down its Warwick manufacturing plant several years ago. He was one of the lucky ones; he got a job as a machinist at Brown University that he loves. But it came with one drawback: a $5-per-hour cut in pay.
THE TECHNICIAN Lamake, the new breed of factory worker, is highly trained.
'WHEN DOES IT STOP?'
As American manufacturing grows ever-leaner, ever-more-productive, the only way it will add a significant number of jobs is to grow its market share — to seize a sizable chunk of business from its global competitors.
What would that take?