How Do You Change The Perception Of Our Field?

While most CNC Tech Talk columns are technical in nature, every once in a while I hope you'll indulge me as I talk about a topic that is very close to my heart. I'm hoping this issue is of interest to everyone in manufacturing.

While most CNC Tech Talk columns are technical in nature, every once in a while I hope you'll indulge me as I talk about a topic that is very close to my heart. I'm hoping this issue is of interest to everyone in manufacturing.

It's almost common knowledge that our brightest young people are counseled away from careers in manufacturing. While I'm sure there are exceptions, most high school counselors have little experience in manufacturing and perceive our field as undesirable. As you attempt to discuss any manufacturing-related field with them, they conjure up visions of gritty workers coming out of the mines. Or, worse yet, they picture mindless workers performing menial tasks that require no skill whatsoever.

Until recently, I thought that our high school guidance counselors just didn't get it. And I thought that they didn't put forth the effort it takes to get it. That was until a few weeks ago when I received a request from a company that provides job descriptions to high school guidance counselors. According to its spokesperson, this company provides materials to more than eighty percent of the high schools in the United States. I was being asked to critique a job description for something called an "NC Tool Programmer." While this job description had merit, there were many serious flaws. While I won't go into details about the quality of this information, or the company's lack of interest in changing it, suffice it to say that any high school counselor reading this job description would not be inclined to recommend our field to anyone. If anything, the counselor would feel as if his or her current perceptions of the manufacturing environment are entirely correct.

But what should you and I do about it? The first suggestion I offer is that you visit your local high school and talk to its guidance counselors in order to gage their experience with manufacturing-related fields. It's likely that they have none, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Ask to see the material used to counsel students about manufacturing. It's likely that they'll pull the very material I'm describing. Read what it says about our field and see if you agree.

Most guidance counselors have a sincere desire to help their students but cannot effectively do so if the information they're receiving is incorrect or misleading. My second suggestion is to offer to show the guidance counselors what's really going on in manufacturing. A plant tour of your company should do the trick. Be sure to show them all the high-tech equipment you're using, including your CAM system. Show them the skill that's involved with getting your CNC machines to cut the parts you make. Every person I've talked to that has done this has said that the guidance counselors were amazed at what they saw and that they came away from the experience with a whole new perception of what manufacturing is all about.

By the way, if you happen across counselors who don't seem to care enough to take you up on this offer, be sure to discuss it with the school's principal. If this doesn't work, attend a school board meeting or two and question why they are so uninterested in our field.

Of course, guidance counselors can only suggest. Students make the real decisions. How can you get them interested? I like what's going in Woodstock, Illinois. You can use their methods as a model, improving where you see fit.

A group of about fifteen manufacturing companies in Woodstock have formed the Machines Advisory Committee (MAC) for Woodstock High School. According to Larry Emricson, a spokesman for MAC, one of the guidance counselors at Woodstock High School was highly impressed with the local plant tours. This counselor got the machine shop teacher involved immediately. Since the shop teacher had limited experience with CNC (and other facets of manufacturing) at the time, the companies making up MAC took turns giving the instructor a summer job. Each summer, the instructor went to work for a different company and gained experience in different facets of manufacturing. As Mr. Emricson puts it, "We accepted the fact that the instructor might make mistakes in hopes that he could go back to his class and teach his students not to."

MAC is also involved with generating student interest in manufacturing. At least once per school year, the group sponsors an organization-wide open house to allow students to see their facilities. MAC members attend the school's career day, and are available to answer questions at any time. They speak at school board meetings and other school functions, inviting parents to see the same things that they're showing students.

To help motivate students to do well in the machine shop program, each member company contributes $125.00 per year to purchase a tooling package (micrometers, calipers, and other important shop tools) that is given away to the top student. This tooling package is displayed in the school's showcase all year long for all students to see.

For interested students, MAC member companies provide part time jobs for students through the school year and during the summer. Special emphasis is placed on improving the students' skills, not just having them perform the usual menial tasks related to entry-level positions. MAC member companies also have created an annual scholarship fund to be used to help students pay for technical school tuition after completing high school.

MAC member companies even provide maintenance and upgrade support for equipment used by the school. If a machine breaks down, MAC member companies help fix it. Also, the school looks to MAC member companies to get suggestions when upgrading and purchasing new equipment (which it has had to do with the increased participation that MAC has created).

In almost every course I teach, someone complains about how hard it is to find qualified CNC people. Yet until we do something to change it, this problem is going to get worse. I welcome your success stories and ideas. As you begin to work with your local high schools, or if you have already done so, please relay your experiences. E-mail me, and I'll post your experiences on our Web page for all to see.