This might sound odd, but one of the things I love most about the work I do is the time spent learning about other businesses. It’s fascinating to me that there are companies out there providing all manner of products and services for things that we rarely think about. Those little washers inside my faucets, the waxy paper that wraps my butter, and – in honor of John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – my shower curtain hangers. All over the world, people are getting up every day; going to work; and making, selling, packaging, and delivering an array of products for an infinite number of uses. There are people making a decent living selling rubber gaskets for water pumps. There are companies extending their product lines from automotive parts into pizza pan grabbers (a fascinating story in its own right.)

The point is, we sit our children down in front of high school guidance counselors and ask them what they want to be while few of them have any concept of what they can be. While we all know about doctors and lawyers and movie stars and farmers, who knew you could make a living building custom furniture or creating chocolate delicacies or hand-blowing glass? I’ve been out of high school for 22 years and working in a field that puts me into direct contact with people in all industries, all over the country, and I’m still regularly finding products and services that I didn’t know existed. For example, I was playing golf with a real-life captain of industry recently and he mentioned that his son-in-law lived in Montana was running a business based on beer tours. Slightly confused, I asked, “You mean like trips to St. Louis and Milwaukee?” (I was wondering how big the market could be for this type of thing.) “No,” he replied, “more like Belgium and Bavaria.” Turns out the market for this type of thing is plenty big enough. If you’re interested, check out BeerTrips

So aside from my own edification, I’ve recently begun thinking about the best way to prepare my own kids for the big wide world of opportunity that awaits them. How can I ensure, when they plop down in front of their guidance counselor and are faced with the inevitable “What do you want to do?” question, that they’ll at least have some idea of the options available? Turns out there are some great resources in our own communities, and a valuable tool online to find them.

Factory Tours USA is an online database of businesses across the country that allow the general public in to tour their facilities. One of the more famous in the Midwest is The Longaberger Company, which offers daily tours of its seven-story home office, built in the shape of their popular market basket. But there are plenty of other gems, both well known and not, that can provide a glimpse into the amazing, complex world of capitalism. The Indiana listing contains more than 20 businesses that range from the Walter Piano Company to Kokomo Opalescent Glass to the South Bend Chocolate Factory. Each one provides a unique view of business from an inside perspective.

I do find it slightly perplexing, however, that Indiana only has 20 businesses listed that offer tours. We live in a state that boasts a dramatic diversity of employers, from large farms to big pharmaceuticals, so you would think this list can (and should) be a lot longer. Two things are possible: There are either a lot of businesses that provide tours that just aren’t listed on this site, or we need to be better about offering this type of community interaction. I’d like to think it’s the former, but I suspect the latter may be true. So if you own or run a business, especially a manufacturing entity of any sort, consider creating a tour program and inviting a local school to come out for a visit. Don’t forget to publicize the event and add your name to the list at sites like FactoryTours USA.

Outside Indiana, every state has some worthwhile offering (think “educational detour on the family vacation.”) From the obvious, like Anheuser Busch, to the amazing, like Boeing, tours are available across the country and the vast majority are free. So whether you’re faced with a rainy day and bored kids or you’re looking for a special twist to a standard vacation, consider adding a factory tour to the itinerary. I can almost guarantee everyone will learn something useful.

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