Cutting Tool Engineering
May 2011 / Volume 63 / Issue 5

Will tinkering ever get another chance?

By Alan Rooks, Editorial Director

I grew up in the early 1960s in a culture of fixing stuff. My dad had a desk job in New York City, but spent much of his leisure time fixing stuff that broke at home—lamps, lawnmowers, toasters, you name it. One memorable summer day, he spent nearly 9 hours under our kitchen sink trying to fix a garbage disposal.

My uncle ran an auto repair shop nearby, and, in our late teens, my brothers and I spent time there after hours fixing our family’s VW Beetles—at one point, we had seven of them, some running, some not. They were simple enough to repair, and I relined brakes, did tuneups and even rebuilt the engine on my ’68 Bug.

I haven’t fixed a lot of stuff since then. Cars are so complex that you need specialized training to work on them. Appliances are so cheap, and cheaply made, that it usually doesn’t make economic sense to repair them. Tinkering and fixing stuff seems old-fashioned.

In an insightful column on the growing skilled labor shortage in the U.S., Gerald Shankel, president of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA), noted this tinkering problem. “Reinforcing this mindset [the lack of interest in manufacturing jobs] is American adults’ disinterest in the manual arts,” he wrote in the Rochester Business Journal. “A national poll revealed that America has become a nation of ‘non-tinkerers,’ with 60 percent of adults avoiding major household repairs, opting to hire a handyman, enlist a relative or contact a property manager. Some 57 percent said they had average or below-average skills for fixing things around the house. Young people essentially have no role models when it comes to repairing things themselves or taking pride in building something useful. It’s no wonder so many teens dismiss the idea of a career in manufacturing.”

That situation won’t get better on its own. Indeed, the last generation of tinkerers is leaving the scene. The first wave of U.S. baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—are beginning to retire, and U.S. manufacturing companies are concerned about replacing them, according to a March survey of manufacturing executives commissioned by Advanced Technology Services Inc. (ATS), a manufacturing services firm based in Peoria, Ill., and conducted by The Nielsen Co. The large manufacturing firms in the survey estimate an average cost per company of $43 million to cover lost productivity and increased recruiting and retraining expenses to replace the retired baby boom workers.

Many respondents (58 percent) are expecting to train the next generation of skilled workers themselves—those qualified in machine calibration, electrical systems, machine operation, tool and die manufacturing and machine maintenance.

Two in three respondents said training programs are key to the future of U.S. manufacturing, and 90 percent felt high schools are not doing enough to prepare students for noncollege careers. Electrical equipment, auto parts and discrete manufacturing are the top areas affected by the labor shortage.

Unlike other major manufacturing countries, such as Germany, there is no national program for educating U.S. technical workers. As a result, most recruitment and training involves grassroots efforts at the companies and in the communities that need them.

Consider these examples.

• Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, an FMA foundation, provides grants for summer manufacturing camps that expose junior high and high school students to math, science, engineering and manufacturing technology.

• ATS recruits high school and vocational-technical school students. It employs them as interns and then, after graduation, hires them full time and trains them.

• Job shop Arundel (Maine) Machine Tool Co. started an apprenticeship program with three high school students. The apprentices will continue their formal education at Southern Maine Community College after graduating from high school and the apprenticeship.

It will take efforts like these—multiplied many times— to replace the technical workers now retiring. If these programs can inspire a new generation of tinkerers and fixers, it will go a long way toward sustaining the U.S. manufacturing recovery. If you have good ideas about how your company is accomplishing this goal, let me know so we can share them with other CTE readers.

About the Author: Alan Rooks is editorial director of CTE. Contact him at (847) 714-0174 or arooks@jwr.com

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