Society shift to blame for skills gap

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Today, finding skilled manufacturing workers is a top concern for factories in the United States and, really, around the world. Here in the USA, it’s hard even to interest people in factory jobs, and even engineering and technology, particularly the young.

Warning: This is the obligatory 25th anniversary column where I sound like a crabby old man. (I’m really middle aged, and “think and act young” as they say in the online dating profiles.) And maybe I was a crabby young man back in 1989 when I started at Plastics News, right from the beginning.

What was it like trying to find people with technical plastics skills 25 years ago? To find out, I asked someone (even) older than me — Charlie Sears, the president of Dri-Air Industries Inc.

Sears is an astute guy who thinks broadly about our world. He asked me not to put his age in the article, but let’s just say he’s past the normal retirement age, which you can do if you own the company. (He’s much younger than Robert Schad!)

Charlie Sears is closer to my father’s generation than mine, but I agree with his analysis: People are different than they used to be, in a way softer. Our reliance and even love of the computer as it spoon feeds us information is the reality today — us old guys know you can’t do anything about it — but it’s not really a good thing.

Dri-Air makes dryers, blenders and material handling equipment. Sears reads in the paper about the skilled worker shortage and scratches his head. How about just basic mechanical skills?

“We hire someone now and they’ve probably never picked up a screw driver in their life,” he said.

These are people 25-30 year old.

“They have no idea of an electric drill, or using a wrench or anything,” he said. “You have to teach them everything.”

Nowadays — even back in the 1970s when I was in high school — guidance counselors, your parents, your relatives, all told you that everybody has to go to college.

“It’s not a good philosophy and we’ve fought that for years,” Sears said. “You think a guidance counselor is gonna tell a kid to go into manufacturing, and tell his parents that? You’re crazy! And yet the child may be qualified for that, and not for other types of employment.”

What about carpentry or plumbing or bricklaying? Or factory work?

And so most kids get no real-world training for manufacturing — like math skills and how to use tools. It’s starting to change, now that the general public is more aware of the skills gap colliding with manufacturing work coming back from China. But it’s slow going.

They see it over in East Windsor, Conn. Sears said when Dri-Air sizes up a candidate for an assembly position, they give him or her a ruler and a piece of paper and say to draw a line 7 and 11/16th inches long. You have to convert the fraction. Not too many job seekers can do it.

“We’re not asking them to read a micrometer,” he said, “just to draw that line.”

What was it like years ago?

Sears grew up in Western Massachusetts. When he started working in industry in 1960, his world still was still mainly an agricultural society. Self-sufficient.

“People mowed their own lawns. People painted their own houses. The kids went out in the field and they played ball, they played with what they had on-hand. It was a world where people had to work with what they had themselves,” he said.

You tinkered with your car, changed your own oil. You fixed the lawn mower. Today, you hire people to all of the above. Sears thinks it’s ironic that people pay somebody to mow their lawn and then pay go to the gym.

He’s right.

Now, everybody has a smartphone, a big flat-screen TV, air conditioning. Even low-income people consider these as necessities.

Sears can figure conversions in his head, for horsepower and energy. He memorized it. My kids didn’t have to memorize the multiplication tables. That’s progress?

I guess you don’t have to memorize anything now thanks to the computer. The computer can figure those horsepower conversions. Your iPhone can endlessly entertain you. You can buy anything online, so why set foot in the mall? I get that. But something gets lost in our society’s full-on love affair with the computer.

When everybody had a television set, people stayed inside, basking in the glow, instead of sitting on the front porch and chatting with the neighbors. Now every family member can sit in their own room, door closed and watch their own shows. Or just scroll through funny cat videos.

What gets lost is the feeling of figuring things out in your head, of making your own fun out of a bunch of junk in the garage.