Apparently it’s not just a few pundits in manufacturing who think that the status of shop classes is more than the stuff of nostalgic walks down the high school corridors of our memories.
Last week’s column on the need for trained and trainable workers to fill the jobs generated by America’s manufacturing resurgence prompted considerable response from readers who endorsed and expanded upon the arguments about the importance of industrial-arts classes.
One such argument is that shop classes introduce high school students to the possibility of good jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.
Wrote one reader, identifying himself as an engineer with a career of more than 30 years at Boeing, “A skilled machinist, mechanic or carpenter should be regarded as an admirable profession in our country, but I don’t think it is anymore. That needs to change if we are going to stop the outsourcing of jobs to other countries.”
It’s not just the high-school graduates who don’t go on to college who would benefit from being steered into industrial trades. As one reader noted, those who never make it to high school commencement in the first place might be less inclined to drop out if they went into programs more in tune with their skills and interests. “The shop teacher may affect students’ lives more profoundly than the one teaching honors courses to the university-bound,” he added
Exposure to the basics of how stuff gets made is of benefit to those headed to college, too, several readers said. One passed on a complaint from an acquaintance in industry that “young engineers lack any hands-on experience, which makes it difficult for them to understand how things work in a practical sense.”
“Having the ability to handle household tools for whatever maintenance and repair jobs keep coming up is valuable lifelong knowledge,” one reader explained. “I was one of the ‘revolutionary girls’ who took a year of shop back in 1943. ... It was great to learn a little about woodworking, using an electric drill, levels and squares. These things served me well in raising a houseful of kids.”
So why don’t students head in that direction? The news about layoffs and plant shutdowns in blue-collar occupations is one reason. The image of manufacturing jobs is another, although in truth much of manufacturing today is far more high-tech, requiring far more skill and conferring far more responsibility on its practitioners, than churning out lines of software code for the latest mobile-phone app.
Availability of classes is another. Shop-style classes aren’t extinct. The Tacoma School District lists high school-level programs in welding, metal fabrication, woods technology, construction trades, engineering and computer-aided design, automotive technology, marine engineering and glass.
Should introductory, basic-level classes be a mandatory part of the curriculum along with English and math? There’s an argument to be made for that, if only to expand the field of students’ knowledge. Your columnist had a junior high-level class in drafting and graphic arts that included hand-setting type. By the time he got to his first newspaper job, Linotypes and the like were museum pieces.
Students aren’t getting much exposure to such knowledge in the real world. The era of the shade-tree auto mechanic has been eclipsed with cars crammed with electronics. Raise your hand if you’ve been told a household appliance has to be junked entirely because a small circuit board has fried itself and it’s not worth the cost and effort of tracking down a replacement.
Shop classes by themselves aren’t going to reinvigorate manufacturing. But a little time tinkering, however ineptly at first, might invigorate a student’s plans and aspirations for life after school. If that also means one more motivated and inspired worker of the future to sustain American manufacturing, so much the better.Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.