• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Students, leaders come to Ruggles

With 107 full-time workers, Ruggles Sign is one of the largest employers in Woodford County. On Thursday, Nov. 10, about half that many students and others joined their ranks on "Sign Manufacturing Day" for two-and-a-half hour tours of the plant and an introduction to the sign industry. The morning session included students from Woodford County High School (WCHS), Lexington Catholic High School and Southside Technical Center, with students from Woodford, Fayette, Scott and Jessamine counties. Non-Ruggles speakers included Rick Jordan, executive director of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and Ervin Dimeny, commissioner of Workplace Standards for the state Labor Cabinet. U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, two days after his reelection to a third term representing Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District, spoke at the end of the session. Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott and Woodford Economic Development Authority Chairman John Soper also attended the morning session, which began in a conference room and ended with a lengthy tour of the plant where the signs are made. The message from Ruggles leaders and employees: the signs they design, make, deliver and maintain are nearly everywhere, in the U.S. and 50 countries, with clients ranging from Nike to Victoria's Secret. Ruggles owner Tim Cambron said he and his wife, Anna, whom he introduced as the other half of the ownership team, were in Los Angeles for the Breeders' Cup the week before and saw a bit of their work.

"We were in Pasadena and just around the corner we saw a Victoria Secret's store, we saw a Brookstone. We see all that stuff. So when you guys leave here today, when you walk in the mall next, I think you're going to say, 'Wow, we saw that at Ruggle's,'" Cambron said. Designer Jay Williams introduced himself as a WCHS and University of Kentucky graduate who stares at computers all day. "Some people, that's not what they want to do, but I love this. This is a dream job for me. I love working on computers, love creating things on computers," Williams said. "The designers in our design department design every single sign that goes through the shop that gets installed in a mall and makes our customers happy." Cambron said every time stores are remodeled, "It's a brand new job for us." Malls that don't mandate their stores be remodeled every decade, like the long-closed Turfland and Lexington malls, don't prosper, he said. Ruggles Sign employees make sure the new signs are designed, installed and maintained properly. Jordan of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet said throughout the United States, there are 600,000 open manufacturing jobs. "The reason why those jobs are open is that everybody thinks that a manufacturing operation is dirty, it's not safe, and the key thing behind this tour is when you walk out in the plant, you're going to see it's one of the cleanest operations, and that's how manufacturing operations are throughout the country," Jordan said. Jordan said by touring the plant and talking to Ruggles workers, they'd learn how interesting such work can be. Dimeny of the Labor Cabinet told of his childhood in Communist-run Romania, which he escaped to move to Hungary in the 1980s. "First time I arrived in Budapest by train was at night, and from a small, tiny little town in Romania, where I grew up in Communism - for months at a time there was no electricity, there were no streetlights, darkness. I arrive in the city - all lights and signs, everywhere. These incredible neon signs. I felt like I was on a different planet. It was a sign of freedom and opportunity," Dimeny said. Dimeny told the students that if they had an opportunity to learn a skill at a company like Ruggles, they should take it. Questions from the students ranged from inquiries into the company's relationship with Shadwell Farm and Gray Construction (both clients, with Gray having renovated the building they were in and constructing Victoria's Secret stores in California) to, "How much do you pay?" The answer to the latter was, "It depends on your experience." They were also told that Ruggles leaders look for flexibility when considering job applicants, because, according to organizational development manager Brad Turpin Jr., they wear many different hats. The tour began, and students were shown letter bending machines, waterjet printers (which spray sand and water at 60 p.s.i.) and CNC routers (computer-controlled cutting machines). All were equipped with safety goggles and earplugs, and some had a chance to apply golf leaf letters, old-school fashion, or use the high-tech machines. Southside Technical students and Woodford County natives Kaytlin Kirtley, Alexander Morse-Hodge, and Tyler Gaines (who'd asked the question about pay) seemed inspired by what they'd seen and heard. "I'm excited. I might look into coming here, for real. It looks nice," Gaines said. Kirtley said she enjoyed welding at school and would like to give it a go at Ruggles. "I would be really excited to try that, and I'm sure I would try other things, too," Kirtley said. Morse-Hodge said he recognized some of the equipment at Ruggles from school. "Anywhere from the (computer) programming and welding, all the way to the drilling of the metal," Morse-Hodge said, adding that he'd already asked his principal about the possibility of a co-op at Ruggles. The WCHS students were members of DECA, the school's business marketing club. Alyssa Parrett said she loved tours and was impressed by what she'd seen. "I'm actually considering going into something like this, because I've been wanting to be a carpenter for awhile and build houses, but this is something more practical and close to home, and it's very hands-on, and I like doing the dirty work," she said. Fellow senior Eli Bradshaw said she'd toured Ruggles the year before and like having more hands-on activities this time around. Another highlight for her was a short speech by Barr, because she's considering a career in politics herself. Barr wrapped up the morning by telling the students that a recent survey of 2013-2014 college graduates showed that 49 percent were underemployed. Manufacturing jobs, he said, were one of the solutions to that problem.

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