Every so often we like to throw out a term and watch how it immediately separates the generations.
Offered for your consideration today, a two-fer: Shop class and industrial arts.
Already we see some knowing nods of recognition from some, blank stares from others.
Those in the first category will remember the days of wood, drafting and metal shop classes where boys (it was highly revolutionary when girls, formerly relegated to home economics, were admitted) turned out book shelves and candelabras only their mothers could love, while instructors tried to keep their charges from slicing off their fingers.
Shop classes didnt disappear, but budget cuts, a push to send kids to four-year colleges and white-collar careers, and the growth of occupational programs at community colleges made junior high and senior high school courses in the industrial arts a bit anachronistic.
True, most of those students werent destined (or skilled enough) for careers as fine carpenters or metal machinists. Still, at least knowing what a lathe or a drill press does wasnt a bad thing.
And as it turns out, the issue of shop class is as contemporary as the computer-controlled machines now common on shop floors.
At the recent Smartmap manufacturing expo in Pasco, the keynote speaker was Harry Moser, the founder of the Reshoring Initiative, an effort to promote the return of manufacturing work to the U.S.
Mosers contention is that the cost differential between producing in the U.S. and, say, China, shrinks considerably when all the costs and risks often left out of the price tag are factored in.
But for reshoring to work, Moser said, trained workers have to be available to fill the manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S. For those workers to be available, students need to be convinced that jobs will be available to them.
The high-school students that are smart enough that youd want to give them a half-million-dollar machine and expect them to hold a couple of microns tolerance on a valuable work piece are smart enough to read about offshoring and post-industrial society and see factories close, he said. So why would they want to take the training to go into manufacturing where there probably wont be any jobs when they could become a salesman or a government worker or a teacher or something other than manufacturing which has had such a rotten reputation for so many years?
Thats where the shop-class issue comes up, as explained by Mark Morel, operator of a Seattle foundry: We, as what I consider an old smokestack industry with metal castings, have no students coming out of the middle or high school arena looking at even a summer job. They dont know anything about the foundry industry. As budget cuts continue, you see (college) education getting more costly, and all the while the biggest thing we see at the high school level is the administration focusing on college when theres still that 40 percent that dont go. ... Where does this 40 percent go? Theyre not coming to us. Theyre not coming to the machine shops.
Moser is an advocate of European-style apprentice programs in which students at age 16 go into four years of specialized training and emerge with a good-paying job. In this country, though, vocational training for manufacturing will likely remain at community colleges.
Manufacturing has been a bright spot in whatever recovery there is. Jobs are available to the willing and trained. Students and parents stunned by the cost/return calculation are rethinking the four-year college experience.
Decisions on where, at what grade level and how much industrial arts training we offer will be part of the huge shake-up in the education system that is coming. If high schools do bring back shop classes, moms of the nation, clear the mantelpieces for more lovely candleholders.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.