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The Key To Survival Juarez Factory Struggles To Be More Productive

Thirty people can put together a keyboard every 20 seconds at Key Tronic’s Juarez factory.

The first worker on the line grabs plastic key tabs from a cardboard box. Her hands fly as she reaches in again and again, clicking seven keys into place.

The keyboard takes shape as the next nine people press on more keys and shove it along the line. Farther down, workers laser-print letters and numbers on, install circuitry and bolt on the backs.

The frenzied activity is repeated along 19 assembly lines, organized by customer. A recent annual report shows the company’s top three customers in 1997 were Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Toshiba.

The line workers sit at long tables under fluorescent lights for eight hours. They break for two quick meals, and one person on each line fills in for others when they go to the bathroom.

The keyboards stack up quickly.

This former Honeywell factory was producing 11,000 keyboards a day when Key Tronic bought it in 1993. Four years later, that number leapt to 36,000.

The company hit its capacity this month and now produces 45,000 keyboards every day. Fewer than one out of 1,000 has a defect.

“I’m very proud of my people,” says Efren Perez, vice president of southwest operations and plant manager. “They are people who really try to succeed.”

Still, it’s not enough.

As fruitful as the move to Juarez has been for Key Tronic, the publicly held company is not thriving. For the past year, Key Tronic has struggled to break even.

That puts the pressure on workers to produce more keyboards, faster, in an increasingly competitive field.

The Juarez plant employs 2,755 workers and was hiring 150 more a week in Januay. New people are trained in two days and sent to the lines.

Key Tronic’s workers wear blue smocks over their jeans and T-shirts. On Fridays, women on the early shift arrive in tight skirts and revealing blouses, anticipating the evening, when they’ll flood the nightclubs and swirl around the dance floor to Mexican folk music.

The company looks for clean-cut, serious workers who won’t create trouble. Men with tattoos or long hair are not hired. Screening tests reject women who are pregnant, and those who say they get painful menstrual cramps. They represent lost work days. Companies are required by law to give women three months of paid maternity leave.

When Key Tronic can afford to be selective, it hires only people under age 25. When the company badly needs workers, the age limit is stretched to 50, says Gabriela Guerrero, superintendent of training and hiring.

The company doesn’t hire former construction workers, who are used to sunshine and wide open spaces; or former policemen, who are accustomed to guns, Guerrero says.

“We have created team spirit in our people, working as a team, not as individuals,” Perez says.

Employees are eligible for three promotions within the first 18 weeks of work, which increase their wages from about $100 monthly to about $160.

They also get two meals per shift prepared in the company’s cafeteria, transportation to and from work on company buses, and medical care from the infirmary’s full-time doctor and four nurses. Workers’ children can go to the infirmary, too.

“Key Tronic has a good reputation down here,” says George Smith, vice president of Juarez’s Maquiladora Association.

The meal program makes the company stand out, says Human Resources Manager Yolanda Ambriz. Many other factories offer compensation for food, she says, but not enough to buy a meal. At Key Tronic, the two meals each day are all-you-can-eat.

One lunch in December included pork chops, soup, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli and salad. Employees also are allowed to take snacks home from the cafeteria. They fill plastic bags with potato chips, cookies and fruit.

Key Tronic offers continuing education classes and sends some workers to college. It arranged a savings program, matching the money that employees contribute. Workers say they have more opportunities for advancement than at other maquiladoras.

The extra benefits, though costly to the company, are crucial in attracting and keeping workers.

Key Tronic officials say the company has 6 percent turnover each month — about 150 workers — in a city where about 10 percent of workers change jobs in that time.

About 2,400 people work the plant’s first two shifts - from 6:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., or 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Another 360 people work from 1 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., mostly in the company’s new plastic molding division.

One-third of the factory, about 42,000 square feet, is devoted to plastic molding - creating keyboard and computer parts. The new area opened last July and is partially filled by 27 machines that run around the clock. Only one or two workers are needed for each machine.

That’s a sign of the future. As the Juarez plant runs out of room for new employees, Key Tronic will increasingly turn to automation, Perez says.

“Too many people in one facility is not a good thing,” he says. “We want to increase the volume without increasing the number of employees.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos Graphic: Juarez factory daily keyboard production