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Learn how a multi-billion dollar U.S. manufacturing initiative changed one man's life

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Walmart. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

In the dialogue around manufacturing in America, there's a tendency to focus on the large-scale quantitative impact. While addressing the major economic effects associated with strengthening U.S. manufacturing is essential, there's far more to this story. After all, manufacturing isn't just inventory and numbers on a spreadsheet. There are dedicated, skilled people that operate the machinery in factories around the country. A closer look at the individuals making American products reveals a second, humanized impact.

Jeff Earl was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. For the last 12 years, he has been under the employment of Dalen Products — manufacturers of lawn and landscaping products. The company started by manufacturing in Knoxville, but as production became more complex they shifted some of it overseas for cost reasons. When Walmart began to carry their products — and made a $250 billion investment in U.S. Manufacturing — Dalen was able to bring production back home. Over the course of his tenure at the company, Earl witnessed the impact of this homecoming — and even saw it create new full-time jobs.

Earl's background is an important one.

"I was a contracted worker for 22 years while I was putting my girls through college and that was a lot of long hours," he shared. "My dad contracted for 45 years so this was just a natural progression for me. I learned the ropes. But the long, long hours prompted me to learn something else." That's when he found Dalen Products. It was his first job outside of working for himself, and he has stayed ever since.

Over time, Earl's hands have contributed to almost every department at Dalen. "When I first came here, I came in as a machine operator. It was the machine that runs off our fabric. I also worked as the receiving warehouse clerk. I worked in shipping. I've worked quality control. I have worked as a night shift supervisor and I've painted owls."

Today, Earl operates the blow mold—a machine that forms the owls, falcons, and rotating-head owls that Dalen Products have become known for. The latter of these natural pest control items was once produced abroad but was brought back as a direct result of Walmart's support.

"That's the largest impact that I have seen — the amount of employees that we have hired since the initiative."

"Any time you have that type of initiative, it will impact the community by creating more jobs," Earl observed. "That's the largest impact that I have seen — the amount of employees that we have hired since the initiative." Specifically though, Earl recalls the story of Tony Farmer.

"I was a receiving clerk, but when more manufacturing came here, I moved to the blow mold and began working as its operator. This meant there was a way for Tony Farmer to come on full time in my old position as the receiving clerk." For four years, Farmer held a seasonal position at Dalen as a second job. Walmart's initiative and Dalen's growth meant Farmer didn't have to take seasonal time off, or hunt for work elsewhere. "It feels good," Earl continued, "any time we can provide jobs for people here in Knoxville."

There's further emotional resonance behind this, as well. "Obviously the company has grown quite a bit in twelve years but I think the way Dalen has interacted with its employees has also grown," said Earl who often makes use of the lakes around the factory for a few casts. "I've noticed, just personally speaking, that this is what has changed the most for me as far as allowing employees to grow in the company and prove their status," Earl concluded.

As they buy more from their vendors, the benefits extend beyond their walls — and a local economic ecosystem gets a boost thanks to the support of retailers like Walmart.

While Earl is the only blow mold operator, Dalen employs many others in the owl department, from painters to employees in assembling and packing. And with the creation of jobs at Dalen, there's more work for those who interact with the company. Dalen has increased its requests from their box manufacturers, and those producing their hangtags and insert sheets. As they buy more from their vendors, the benefits extend beyond their walls — and a local economic ecosystem gets a boost thanks to the support of retailers like Walmart.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Walmart. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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