Laborers flex their literary muscles

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Hillary Gavan/Beloit Daily News Fairbanks Morse Engine engineer Brian Olenski and machinists Kody Nicholson and Pam Densch discuss Books@Work, a program where employees read fiction in groups led by Beloit College professors. Employees said it’s improved communication and broadened their horizons.

BELOIT — Machinists and engineers aren’t always readers, but many of the ones at Fairbanks Morse Engine are.

About 30 percent of Fairbanks 489 employees have joined the Books@Work program to broaden their horizons. The creativity and connectivity found between the covers of many classic novels have been spilling into the shop floor in the form of improved communication and camaraderie.

Books@Work is a program where employees read and discuss fiction on company time in groups led by local college professors. In the case of Fairbanks, Beloit College professors lead the groups. Since 2013, the company has hosted eight discussion clubs and 23 Books@Work programs. A full plant session this month attracted roughly 370 participants.

Fairbanks Morse Engine manufactures power systems that are used for power generation, ship propulsion and shipboard power.

Fairbanks Morse Engine President Marvin Riley said Books@Work is a great way to blend two longstanding Beloit institutions — Fairbanks and its neighbor Beloit College.

The program is also in line with the company’s holistic outlook on employee development. The program can engage employees’ hearts and minds while improving critical thinking skills and empathy.

“Having more empathy gives us better perspectives and higher quality conversations and connections. Those things build trust and will help make for better performance,” Riley said.

Riley said the program forces employees to bring their full selves to work versus their work versions of themselves.

“My hope is that all of my employees become avid readers, and more energized and excited about work and building relationships,” Riley said.

Marketing Supervisor Jil Holmstrom said the communication fostered by Books@Works is in line with the company’s safety mission. Better communication is one of many steps toward ensuring safety on the floor. Fairbanks Morse Engine engineer Brian Olenski and machinists Kody Nicholson and Pam Densch said Books@Work has brought them closer to fellow employees and broadened their horizons.

Nicholson and Densch are in the same reading group which usually meets on Mondays. They both agree the program has got them reading books they normally wouldn’t try as the professors help to explain some of the books’ subtleties and undertones.

They’ve read everything from “Our Time,” a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, to George Eliot's novel “Silas Marner.”

Densch, the only female machinist at Fairbanks, said she’s gotten to know a lot of her coworkers on a more personal level as the books bring up an array of topics to discuss.

“I’ve seen the personal side of one another, and it’s brought us all closer together,” Densch said.

Densch and Nicholson said learning to read between the lines of the books has taught them to look beyond what a coworker might be saying, to other underlying truth of a situation. They said it’s fostered communication and trust.

Nicholson explained how the novel “Silas Marner” makes people think about relationships and what legitimizes them. The books get their brains moving in all kinds of new ways as they stretch their literary muscles.

“Do I like Pam or am I stuck with her for eight hours. Is it deeper than circumstances?” joked Nicholson.

Olenski said he had enjoyed reading in the past but didn’t have a reason to read in recent years.

He explained how he read “The Devil in the White City” about the construction and design of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The story of the design and construction of the Fair coincides with the second half of the book which is about a serial murderer who came to Chicago.

“Once in awhile, the two stories would cross,” Olenski said.

Some of the unique readings have not only helped his relationships with coworkers, but help give have more colorful conversations with friends off work time.

Densch said the biggest benefit of the club is how it fosters better collaboration between staff.

“I think it makes you a little bit more tolerant of the little stuff that happens at work. It’s taught me to look at people on a more personal level,” she said.

“You can all read the same thing and have six different conclusions,” Nicholson added.

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