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'Saving' The Next Generation Of Manufacturing Workers

Thu, 06/13/2013 - 2:40pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

When it comes to the monumental task of training another generation of manufacturing employees, armed with the high-tech skills that the technology-heavy processes of the future will require, it’s easy to come down hard on the educational system. There are some basic tropes: guidance counselors push all students toward an undergraduate degree; shop classes are being shuttered; educators aren’t as focused or driven as they used to be, or that they’re over/underpaid, depending on who’s talking; the current system only seeks to help students achieve on standardized tests. There are more, but the point is that many people believe there are fundamental problems with America’s current educational system.

And they’re right. There are problems — no point in arguing otherwise. But I think educators often get unfairly blamed as the catalyst for the problems our educational system is currently dealing with. In my opinion, good educators are just about the only positive the system has left. And yes, there are bad educators, just like there are bad maintenance technicians or bad managers, but that shouldn’t detract from those who care and who work hard despite the poor infrastructure to help students get the education they need.

National Instruments, the Austin, Texas-based maker of equipment and software for engineers in a variety of industries, has been leading a nationwide effort to highlight just how important good educators are to the educational system. Their new guidebook, titled “Saving the World One Student at a Time,” aims to showcase, primarily, “the moment [educators] progressed from inspiring individual students to inspiring entire classrooms full of them.”

All of the stories are remarkable in their own rights, but some educators — such as Dave Barrett, a professor of mechanical engineering and Olin College — have gone above and beyond their call to change old paradigms in order to help better educate a generation of students that simply don’t learn the same way as previous generations have. That’s exactly what Barrett found, and then set about fixing it.

He moved the course from a lecture hall to a lab, and gave students the chance to work on industry-sponsored projects, which helped them mix textbook theory and real-world applications. By structuring the course like on-the-job training, he could teach students about managing time and working efficiently while still being able to gauge their performance and improvement in a more dynamic way than simple multiple-choice exams.

In the guidebook, Barrett says, “There’s nothing like watching the airplane you’ve spent hours building crash to the ground. After that, you’ll never accidentally make a number in an equation negative when it was supposed to be positive.” 

If you ask me, that degree of experimentation is exactly what our educational systems are missing right now. Almost every child wonders, after “suffering” through another mathematics or physics class, “When will I ever use this when I’m an adult?” Of course, many of those same kids will later find a passion for engineering or the sciences, and will end up using those principles daily. But why wait to prove to them the value in those kinds of studies? We need to take the kinds of approaches that educators like Barrett has implemented and bring trickle them down to youngsters.

Here’s where we return to one of the initial problems with the current U.S. educational system: Money is disappearing, and schools are choosing to focus on test scores (the promise of more funding if students do well) rather than the kind of experimentation Barrett has used successfully. He had the flexibility of being a professor at prestigious private university. How do we create that infrastructure of experimentation among K-12 public schools? How do we afford it?

Groups like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which NI is also deeply involved in, is one example of how industry is working to help students as young as 5 or 6 experiment with science and technology. But I’d argue that industry could — and should — be doing a lot more for education. A shop class sponsored by a local manufacturer, for example, could make all the difference. Or involvement with a local FIRST team could help students pay for equipment or travel to events.

Let’s be honest: These small steps are important, because if the Millenials aren’t even well-suited to manufacturing or engineering work, as many have claimed, what about those born after 2000? They certainly won’t be any better. And because manufacturers have a vested interest in ensuring that at least a fraction of tomorrow’s workers are capable of working in a manufacturing environment, or at least programming the robots that will inevitably do a bulk of the work, they should also be working to encourage putting that algebra to good use.

In a sense, the guidebook from NI is just one part of the equation. Yes, we need good, smart and innovative educators to adapt old lessons for new students. But they, in turn, also need industry support in order to get the real work done. And it’s not just about the dollars — just as many youngsters have lost a drive to get a good STEM education, industry has given up on its old capacities to usher them into the industry.

Things are turning back around, with more U.S. manufacturers seeing that they need to work to get the skilled labor they need. Hypertherm, a New Hampshire-based designer and manufacturer of plasma cutting equipment, has reached out into the local workforce and trained people — many with no manufacturing experience — in the art of CNC machining. The benefits have manifested both in the region, and on their own plant floor.

Is Hypertherm “saving the world”? Perhaps not — it’s a nine-week program centrally focused on teaching a single, albeit valuable, skill. Is National Instruments? Again, it depends on who you ask. They're already beginning to hire college-educated engineers who are FIRST alumni, but that program is just a small slice of the pie. Still, there’s no doubt that they’re doing more than most, and when it comes to saving or rescuing, the first one on scene tends to get the glory, as long as they're willing to act.

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