Technology Makes People More Significant

The staff of this magazine struggles with something basic: what to call people who work directly with CNC machining technology. We tend to default to what the shop in question calls them.

Columns From: 12/1/2006 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

The staff of this magazine struggles with something basic: what to call people who work directly with CNC machining technology. We tend to default to what the shop in question calls them. “Operator” is a common term, for example, but in many facilities, that term understates the level of oversight this operator applies. At B&E Tool (see “Lights-Out”
With A Lighter Commitment), the men overseeing the flexible cell call themselves machinists—a term that does suggest a requisite level of skill. However, the skills applied have changed. These men don’t tend to one job at a time the way machinists of previous generations did; they tend to a number of jobs at once, so the jobs can run without them after everyone has left.

This ambiguity over jobs titles reflects a much larger development, the impact of which is difficult to understate. As the 20th century began, only a small minority worked in “industry”—making and moving physical products. By mid-century, nearly half the U.S. working population had these jobs. Then, by century’s end, the fraction was back down where it was when the century started, though industrial output kept on growing. The U.S. remains a manufacturing powerhouse with considerably fewer people today, because technology changes make each of those people more significant.

A century is just four generations. To indicate the speed of the changes, consider that job descriptions and the basic
structure of working society had remained largely constant for thousands of years before the 20th century began. It is simply unprecedented for the nature of work and the demand for work to change at the speed and scale with which it has changed for industrial employees during the previous century and through to today.

This leads to at least two implications, one for society and one for your shop.

First, the rapidly changing nature of industrial work suggests how problematic it is to task government with “retraining” displaced blue-collar employees. Employers themselves struggle to define what skills and attributes are relevant to their changing businesses today, so a government program dispensing advice or actual training is almost certain to reside too far from the problem. A successful societal structure for equipping these employees would require serious engagement from employers at a much earlier stage than when the presumably trained applicant comes looking for a job.

The second implication is that hiring employees and developing their strengths probably represents the most important investment your business makes. You might know this intellectually, but does your business know it culturally? Consider the research, legwork and deliberation that go into purchasing new equipment. Does your business put the same care into assembling and cultivating the staff that will determine how productive that equipment is going to be?

A third implication applies to those employees overseeing the production technology. If you are one of these people, consider yourself part of an elite group. You are one of a small number helping to command a large amount of productive output—regardless of the term you go by.

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