In Dave Kuehl’s Quiet World, Nothing is Impossible
Dave Kuehl was in his late twenties when he applied at Du Fresne Manufacturing, a fabrication shop in Vadnais Heights, (MN). He had no experience with sheet metal, but was working two jobs to support his family and needed a break. Owner Robert Du Fresne put him to work in the assembly area. He soon earned a reputation as a solid, dependable worker. Since Kuehl was always looking for overtime, he was allowed to move around to whatever department was busiest, but eventually settled into the bending area, where he learned to operate and then program press brakes. After 14 years at Du Fresne Manufacturing, Kuehl was recently promoted to engineering.
Kuehl’s story will ring true with anyone who started at the bottom and worked their way up. It’s often no easy task, but manufacturing offers countless such opportunities—success is simply a matter of working hard and grabbing the breaks when they come, right? In fact, his career path might seem fairly ordinary except for one thing: Kuehl is speech and hearing impaired.
“I started him out inserting hardware because I figured you don’t need much in the way of communication skills there,” said Du Fresne. “But Dave’s such a great guy to work with, the people around him started picking up sign language, and pretty soon he could work in any of the departments. The problem came when we ran out of ways for him to advance his skill set. He was kind of stuck as a press brake operator with no way up.”
Two years ago, Du Fresne saw an opportunity for Kuehl to further his career when the company purchased a pair of high-end automated press brakes. He needed someone to learn how to setup and program the new machines—the first of their kind in Minnesota—so he put up an internal job posting and let the word trickle down that Kuehl should apply. To Du Fresne, it was part of the obligation for opportunity, or oblitunity, that he feels is owed to all employees.
“With some encouragement from his coworkers, he signed up, and I thought, ‘This is great, it’ll be his first big promotion,’” said Du Fresne. “We were all really happy that he’d decided to go for it. But the next day we saw that someone had scratched his name off the list.”
After some digging, the department head found out that it was Kuehl himself who’d retracted his name. Du Fresne called him to his office to discuss the matter, and soon learned that the press brake operator didn’t want to leave his friends on the shop floor, who were able to “sign” with Kuehl—a programming position would mean moving to the office.
“‘Dave, your world is quiet,’ I told him. ‘I'll put your programming station right next to the machine. You don’t have to leave your friends, you can sit in a chair, work on CAD files, and help out down there. You can stay in the world you’re comfortable working in, no problem.’ He thought about it for an hour or so and agreed to give it a try.”
“I started him out inserting hardware because I figured you don’t need much in the way of communication skills there. But Dave’s such a great guy to work with, the people around him started picking up sign language, and pretty soon he could work in any of the departments.”
The next challenge was training. Since it would be difficult to send Kuehl to a classroom in Chicago, Du Fresne brought the classroom to Kuehl. And even though the trainer was at first skeptical when he learned his student could neither hear nor speak, he was soon proven wrong.
“I remember the guy looked at me like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” said Du Fresne. “Then he warned me that he had to leave by the end of the week, that’s all the time he could spend. But the next afternoon he knocked on my door to tell me he was finished with the training. ‘I showed Dave everything one time and that’s all it took for him to master it. There nothing more I can teach him.’”
Within the first six months, Kuehl programmed nearly one thousand jobs. Today he helps train others in the press brake area, people he once had to go to for help, and will soon take on his new position in the engineering department. When asked how Kuehl became such a quick learner (and an awesome employee), Du Fresne said it’s because he’s had to be that way to survive. “I'm not speech and hearing impaired, so I can't really say, but I think it’s because his whole life molded him this way. Otherwise he would have been left behind. All I can say for sure is that we’re glad to have him.”