Skipping school

May 16, 2018 - 04:15pm

I admit to some bias against school. From about fifth grade on, our educational system and I were rarely on speaking terms. Think oil and water rather than peas and carrots. Needless to say, I left at my earliest opportunity.

Aside from that thing with my daughter pulling the fire alarm, my kids were far better students. So when it came time for them to make the big decisions, I kept my opinion to myself and did what most parents do these days: Encourage them to get their college degrees. Ironically, both now work for manufacturing companies—one at Raytheon Co., the other Lockheed Martin Corp.—both happy in their jobs, especially since the last student loan payment is several years behind us. Mission accomplished.

We all want better lives for our children than the ones we faced. My career path was one I couldn’t have predicted nor have recommended, filled with missteps, do-overs and no small number of skipped rungs on the corporate ladder. Starting as a shop helper, I worked my way up to handscrew operator, NC programmer, process engineer, information technology director and finally enterprise resource planning consultant, all in manufacturing. Now I write about it.

Look, Mom, no school.

Would college have made that path smoother? Would it have reduced the number of jobs I took to earn another few thousand dollars a year or assume additional responsibilities? I don’t know. What I do know—or at least feel in my heart—is that the “you must attend college no matter what” message that American society has been shoving down the throats of its young people over recent decades is a mistake. A big one.

America is a land of manufacturers. Everything around us, from the drywall in our living rooms to the smartphones in our pockets, was made possible by manufacturing. Thanks to high school shop class—known then as industrial arts—I at least had a clue about “making things” at a young age. So when I heard as a teenager how all the tool and die makers were retiring in a few years and that huge opportunities existed for anyone willing to get his hands dirty and learn a trade, I said, “Hell, yes. Where do I sign?”

Sadly, shop class is, for the most part, a thing of the past. Schools would rather offer college preparatory classes aimed at easing students into white-collar career paths than teach them how to operate a lathe or show them how to mold a pair of aluminum candlesticks. The result is massive student loan debt, mostly useless fashion design and liberal arts degrees and a generation of people who would be hard-pressed to construct a birdhouse.

Nearly 40 years later, the “silver tsunami” is here again. Forty percent of the skilled workers, half of our welders and three-fourths of the country’s tool and die machinists are set to retire over the next decade or less. And despite the efforts of organizations such as the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, SkillsUSA and the Gene Haas Foundation, an increasing number of schools encouraging young people to pursue a career in the trades and the lure of a highly technical, good-paying job as a CNC operator or sheet metal worker, manufacturing remains decidedly “not sexy.”

I hope I’m wrong. Manufacturing has been my life. Despite my unorthodox career path, it fed my family and put a roof over our heads. It afforded me the opportunity to travel around the world and meet countless wonderful (and a few not so wonderful) people. And it has made me part of an elite group of folks with one thing in common: We make modern life possible.

The silver tsunami? We’ll survive it one way or the other. What’s most important is that other young people have a chance to share in this proud legacy that’s given me so much. And to think that it all started with shop class.

Related Glossary Terms

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • land


    Part of the tool body that remains after the flutes are cut.

  • lathe


    Turning machine capable of sawing, milling, grinding, gear-cutting, drilling, reaming, boring, threading, facing, chamfering, grooving, knurling, spinning, parting, necking, taper-cutting, and cam- and eccentric-cutting, as well as step- and straight-turning. Comes in a variety of forms, ranging from manual to semiautomatic to fully automatic, with major types being engine lathes, turning and contouring lathes, turret lathes and numerical-control lathes. The engine lathe consists of a headstock and spindle, tailstock, bed, carriage (complete with apron) and cross slides. Features include gear- (speed) and feed-selector levers, toolpost, compound rest, lead screw and reversing lead screw, threading dial and rapid-traverse lever. Special lathe types include through-the-spindle, camshaft and crankshaft, brake drum and rotor, spinning and gun-barrel machines. Toolroom and bench lathes are used for precision work; the former for tool-and-die work and similar tasks, the latter for small workpieces (instruments, watches), normally without a power feed. Models are typically designated according to their “swing,” or the largest-diameter workpiece that can be rotated; bed length, or the distance between centers; and horsepower generated. See turning machine.

  • metalworking


    Any manufacturing process in which metal is processed or machined such that the workpiece is given a new shape. Broadly defined, the term includes processes such as design and layout, heat-treating, material handling and inspection.

  • numerical control ( NC)

    numerical control ( NC)

    Any controlled equipment that allows an operator to program its movement by entering a series of coded numbers and symbols. See CNC, computer numerical control; DNC, direct numerical control.


Contributing Editor

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor for Cutting Tool Engineering magazine. Contact him by phone at (520) 548-7328 or via e-mail at


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