Sporting goods production workers are involved in manufacturing, assembling, and finishing sporting goods equipment such as golf clubs, fishing tackle, basketballs, footballs, skis, and baseball equipment. Their tasks range from operating machines to fine handcrafting of equipment.
Sporting Goods Production Worker Career History
Throughout history, every society and culture has developed games and sports for relaxation and competition. Bowling, for example, has been around for centuries; a stone ball and nine stone pins were found in the ancient tomb of an Egyptian child. Polo is believed to have originated in Asia and was brought back to England and America by British officers returning from India in the 1800s. Native American peoples played lacrosse with webbed sticks and hard wooden balls centuries ago. Soccer, arguably the world’s most popular sport, was invented in England, where a version of the game was played nearly 2,000 years ago.
Some of the most popular sports in America have a relatively recent history. Basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts; its popularity grew so quickly that it became an Olympic event in 1936. Ice hockey as we know it was invented in Canada in the 1870s. It quickly became popular in northern countries and was inaugurated as an Olympic sport in 1920. In the 1870s football started as a college sport that mixed elements of soccer and rugby and soon developed its own set of rules. Although folklore attributes the invention of baseball to Abner Doubleday in 1839, people were playing it for many years before then.
Some games, both ancient and modern, have changed little since the time they were first played. Soccer, for instance, has remained popular in part because of its simplicity; the only equipment needed to play is a ball. Other sports have grown to require more elaborate equipment. Modern technology has been applied to many aspects of sport and given us such improvements as better protective padding, livelier tennis rackets, and stronger golf balls. Computers are used to improve the design and composition of sports gear. The equipment used in each sport is unique in design and manufacture and is put together by skilled specialists.
The Job of Sporting Goods Production Workers
Every sport involves its own equipment, and each kind of equipment is made somewhat differently. Basketballs and volleyballs are made by approximately the same process, which differs from the processes for making footballs and baseballs. But the manufacturing processes for sporting goods and for other products are also similar in many ways.
As in the manufacturing of other products, machine operators control large machine tools, such as presses, and smaller tools, such as saws and sewing machines. After they have done their tasks, they may pass the work on to different kinds of assemblers. Floor assemblers operate large machines and power tools; bench assemblers work with smaller machines to complete a product and perhaps to test it; precision assemblers perform highly skilled assembly work. They may work closely with engineers and technicians to develop and test new products and designs. These general categories can be applied to many of the occupations involved in sporting goods manufacturing, although the job titles vary with different kinds of products.
In the manufacturing of golf equipment, for example, the shaft of a golf club and the head, or club end, are made separately and are then assembled, weighted, and balanced. Golf-club assemblers do much of the work. They use bench-mounted circular saws to cut the shaft for a club to a specified length, depending on the model of club being made. Golf-club head formers hammer precast metal club heads to the correct angle and then glue the proper club head onto a shaft and secure the head by drilling a small hole and inserting a pin. Wooden clubs are glued together the same way, except that once the assembly has dried, the weight of the club is checked and adjusted for the model type. Assemblers or golf-club weighters can adjust the weight by drilling a hole into the head and adding molten lead or threaded cylindrical metal weights.
Grip wrappers attach the handle of the golf club. They insert a club in a rotating machine, brush adhesive on the shaft, attach a leather strap, and then carefully spin the shaft to cover it tightly and evenly with the leather strap. When they are finished, they trim the excess leather and fasten the grip in place with tape or a sleeve. Finally, golf-club head inspectors examine the head to verify that it conforms to specifications.
The manufacturing of fishing equipment is another instance of a production process involving a series of workers. It begins with fishing-rod markers, who mark the places on rod blanks where the line guides and decorative markings should be put. After this, fishing-rod assemblers use liquid cement to attach the hardware, such as reel seats, handles, and line guides, onto the rods. Line guides can also be attached with thread by guide winders, who decorate the rods by winding thread around them at intervals. Finally, fishing-reel assemblers assemble the parts of the intricate reel mechanisms, test the reels, and then attach them to rods.
Some processes used in manufacturing sporting goods, such as lathing (which is used in making baseball bats) and vulcanizing (which is used in making hockey pucks), are commonly used in making many other products as well. But other processes are more specialized. To make basketballs, volleyballs, and soccer balls, for example, ball assemblers cement panels of rubberized fabric onto a hollow, spherical frame made of wax. A door opening is left in the ball carcass so that the wax frame can be broken and removed piece by piece. Once this is done, a bladder is inserted into the ball and inflated to a specific pressure. The flaps of the door opening are then aligned with the other seams of the ball and cemented onto the bladder, and the ball is complete.
Some baseball equipment is still made by hand, much the same way it was many years ago. Many wooden bats are hand-turned to the specifications of each player. Danny Luckett makes Louisville Slugger bats in Louisville, Kentucky, and has personally finished bats for many major league players. “We used to do everything by hand, but now a tracing machine helps make the bats,” says Luckett, who has worked for 30 years for the Hillerich & Bradsby Company, which is the manufacturer of Louisville Slugger bats. “The machine is similar to a key-making machine and uses a template. Before, we could make 32 to 35 in a day, and now we can make 250 to 260 in a day.”
Baseballs themselves are assembled by hand baseball sewers, who cement the leather hide of the ball to the core and sew the sections of hide together using a harness needle and waxed linen thread. To make baseball gloves, lacers sew precut pieces of leather together, working with the glove inside out. Then lining inserters put a lining in place, and reversers turn the glove right-side out on a series of posts. Next, baseball glove shapers use a heated, hand-shaped form to open and stretch the finger linings. With various rubber mallets, they hammer the seams smooth and form the glove pocket. Finally, they try on the glove and pound the pocket to make sure that it fits comfortably.
As these examples show, the manufacturing of sporting goods involves ordinary industrial processes that are adapted to suit each product. Within the limits of sports safety and economical operation of their plants, sporting goods manufacturers are constantly trying to improve designs and manufacturing processes to make equipment that is reliable and durable and maximizes athletic performance.
Sporting Goods Production Worker Career Requirements
While most employers prefer that employees have a high school diploma, it is not a requirement for many jobs in this industry. Employers look for workers who can do accurate, high-quality work at a fast pace. Most employees in the industry learn their skills through on-the-job training. Training may take from a few days to several months, depending on the job.
High school courses that can help prepare students for working in the sporting goods equipment industry include shop, basic mathematics, blueprint reading, sewing, and other classes that provide practice in following written instructions and diagrams or making items by hand. Speech classes will also be helpful. “It’s important to have good communication skills,” says Danny Luckett. “You have to pay attention to details.”
Electronic devices are used more and more in sports for purposes such as timing skiers and runners. As more applications are developed for electronic and electrical equipment, more manufacturing workers will be needed who have the kind of knowledge and training that is available at technical schools. Also, design, precision assembly, and production jobs increasingly rely on machinery that is controlled by computers. For these reasons, a background that includes training in electronics and computer applications is very important for many jobs in this industry.
Sports equipment production workers generally need good eyesight and manual dexterity to work with small parts and operate machines. Interest in sports can be an advantage. For example, it helps for workers who shape baseball gloves to have experience playing baseball and using gloves, so they know the feel of a good fit. “I used to play [baseball] when I was younger,” says Luckett. “It’s kind of neat now to watch the games and know that we have a part in it.”
Some sporting goods production workers belong to labor unions. Luckett belongs to the Steelworkers Union. Another union is the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which represents workers who make shoes, caps, hats, uniforms, ski suits, golf gloves, leotards, and other apparel. Other unions include the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; the International Leather Goods, Plastic and Novelty Workers Union; the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation; the Laborers’ International Union of North America; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers.
Exploring Sporting Goods Production Worker Career
To learn something about what the work is like in the sporting goods production business, you can try to get a summer job working in a nearby sports equipment factory. Such a job is likely to be in a warehouse or in custodial services, but it may still offer you a chance to observe the manufacturing processes firsthand and to talk with experienced employees about their jobs. Working part time can also be an opportunity to show an employer that you are dependable and have good work habits, and it could lead to permanent employment in the future. Since an interest in sports is helpful, a knowledge of sports and sports equipment gained through actual participation would be beneficial.
There are more than 3,000 manufacturers of sporting goods equipment in the United States, according the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). They are located throughout the United States and may be small companies or large conglomerates. The recent trend toward mergers has affected this industry; fewer companies are employing more workers.
Job seekers in this field can contact sporting goods manufacturers directly to learn whether or not they have any job openings. Other possibilities for job leads include checking the listings at the local offices of the state employment service and in the classified sections of newspapers. School counselors can provide information about local companies that are looking for workers.
Newly hired employees in sporting goods factories usually are assigned simple tasks. Trainees may acquire their job skills informally as they work beside and watch more experienced workers. Others may enter into a formal training program. Workers who have completed training for their job category and have shown they can meet production requirements may be able move into higher paying production jobs as they become available.
“Here, you’re not really hired to do one specific job, but jobs are filled from within and you start where there is an opening,” says Danny Luckett about the baseball bat manufacturer for which he works.
In companies that are large and diversified, workers may advance to jobs in other divisions. Qualified employees may also move to positions as product inspectors or supervisors of other production workers. Moving into management jobs usually requires further experience, technical training, and formal education in business subjects.
Some knowledgeable, experienced people with new product ideas or an urge for independence may decide to start their own sporting goods production company. Setting up a new business in any field is a risky venture, however, and anyone who is interested in taking this step needs first to take a hard and informed look at the high costs involved, in addition to the potential benefits.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median hourly earnings of machine setters, operators and tenders ranged from about $12 to $18 in 2004 ($24,960 to $37,440 annually for full-time work). Assemblers had earnings than ranged from less than $8 an hour to $18 or more per hour in 2004. Beginning workers often start at between minimum wage and $8.50 per hour ($16,640 to $37,440 annually for full-time work). Wages are generally higher for skilled, experienced machine operators. Most workers also get fringe benefits, such as health insurance, paid holidays and vacation days, and pension plans. Some firms offer stock options to employees.
Conditions in plants vary, with some factories having modern, well-equipped, well-lit work stations for employees. Other plants provide less comfortable working conditions. In some jobs, employees have to sit or stand in one place for the entire work shift, while other jobs require heavy lifting, hammering, or other physically strenuous activities. People who operate presses, molds, and other heavy machinery may have to load and remove heavy work pieces made of leather, metal, fiberglass, plastic, and other materials. Almost all workers have production quotas to meet, which can be stressful at times.
Heat, noise, dust, or strong odors are unavoidable in many production jobs. Workers may need to wear safety glasses, hard hats, earplugs, or other protective clothing.
Sports equipment production workers average 40 hours of work per week. Many factories operate two or three shifts a day, so employees may be required to work days, evenings, nights, or weekends.
Sporting Goods Production Worker Career Outlook
As sports and fitness become more popular among health-conscious Americans, the market for sporting goods is expected to continue to grow. Exports of American- made goods may also increase in coming years.
This does not mean, however, that the number of jobs in sporting goods manufacturing will also increase. The manufacture of many kinds of sports gear is very laborintensive, and to keep labor costs down, manufacturers have moved some of their operations to plants in other countries, where workers can be paid lower wages. In addition, advances in automation, robotics, and computer-aided manufacturing are allowing companies to phase out certain production jobs. In the future, the need will be for employees who can program machines, supervise production, and manage resources. Workers will also be needed to test product safety and quality.
The sporting goods manufacturing industry is generally a solid but not expanding business. Job turnover is fairly high among production and assembly workers, so most new workers will be hired to replace people who leave their jobs.