The Hands, the Hands

The skills we need to keep our industry young start with the most basic, most personal tools of all, yet a grasp of this fact is elusive.

“Good with the hands” is traditionally a trait that first marked those with the talent to succeed in a shop career. Taking things apart and putting them back together. Building model kits. Fixing bikes and then working on cars. Enjoying any kind of activity that involved tools. These early signs could show that a youngster had the potential to develop skills in the arts, crafts or trades. Even so, a gift for handwork might be overlooked or discouraged by families or teachers biased toward pure intellectual activity.

How long can these hands hold out?

Luckily, many of these gifted individuals did find the path to an apprenticeship program, training classes or entry-level employment where these abilities could be nurtured, strengthened and disciplined. Others found an outlet for these natural abilities in hobbies or side pursuits while different career paths opened up for them. (This is the group in which I might be counted.)

Still today, in the best factories and plants, the shop workforce is largely made up of individuals who are skilled with their hands. They have the touch, the feel, the knack. The sure sign is an intuitive ability to coordinate dexterity and vision with a rare quickness and certainty. They are smart with their hands, and most often with their heads, as well.

How long can these hands hold out?

Despite all the automated, lights-out operation that a manufacturing facility may install, skilled hands at work are essential to maintaining this equipment; preparing the cutting tools or measurement devices; handling fixture components or workpieces. Even for those who move into supervisory, management or ownership positions, this foundation in manual skills is a source of pride and perhaps a yearning that lingers.

It is an inescapable fact that the energy and deftness in the hands of skilled tradespeople is a function of youth. This strikes me personally because I can see my own hands changing in unwelcome ways as I get older. My knuckles are becoming knobby, the fingers crooked. When working on a hobby project, I can’t count on these hands as assuredly as I have in the past.

How long can these hands hold out?

I’m sure the old timers, the veteran machinists and the toolroom gurus must have the same experience. They know their hands are not going to be strong and nimble forever. Their hands have been their most reliable and useful tools throughout their careers—now these tools are touched by something no wrench, caliper, end mill or file ever is. It is mortality.

How long can these hands hold out?

In much of the high-level talk about the future of manufacturing, its economic significance and recruiting a new generation of shop talent, what is missing is an urgent awareness of the importance of these hands and how long can they hold out. As a result, policy makers, educators, theorists and corporate leaders may be out of touch, quite literally. And so they miss the crucial point. It’s all about the hands—young hands, old hands, our hands.