kitchen table math, the sequel: math in factory work

Friday, May 6, 2011

math in factory work

In the Wall Streey Journal today:
U.S. manufacturing companies, long known for layoffs and shipping jobs overseas, now find themselves in a very different position: scrambling for scarce talent at home.

Large and small manufacturers of everything from machine tools to chemicals are scouring for potential hires in high schools, community colleges and the military. They are poaching from one another, retraining people who used to have white-collar jobs, and in some cases even hiring former prisoners who learned machinist skills behind bars.


Third, the U.S. education system isn't turning out enough people with the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment, jobs that often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits. Manufacturers say parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.

"We get people coming in here all the time who say, 'I can weld,'" says Denis Gimbel, human-resources manager at Lehigh Heavy Forge Corp., of Bethlehem, Pa., whose products include parts for ships. "Well, my grandmother could weld." He needs people who understand the intricacies of $1 million lathes and other metal-shaping equipment.

Manufacturers have anticipated for years that baby-boomer retirements would create difficulties. Among those who have tried to get ahead of the demographic curve—with mixed success—is Jeff Kelly, chief executive of Hamill Manufacturing Co., a family-owned company near Pittsburgh that cuts metal into parts for ships and machinery.

Hamill doesn't have any button-pushing work. The 127-employee company is constantly resetting its mills and lathes to produce small numbers of parts to meet precise and ever-changing specifications. There are no long, routine production runs.

One morning in late April, Trent Thompson, a 20-year-old Hamill apprentice wearing shredded jeans and a black baseball cap, was assigned to drill three holes in a piece of carbon steel about the size and shape of a hockey puck. To make sure he was spacing the holes exactly right, he scrawled a triangle and some trigonometric calculations on a notepad. Even a tiny error would mean wasting about $400 of metal.


In another corner of the factory, Bill Schaltenbrand, 59, was cutting bigger, more complicated parts. A computer had worked out where he should drill and cut, but Mr. Schaltenbrand, a 40-year veteran at Hamill, does his own math to double-check the plans. Computers, he says, sometimes "punch out stupid stuff." Part of Mr. Schaltenbrand's skill is reading blueprints with myriad numbers and symbols that would baffle most people.


Bayer has had particular trouble filling positions in such areas as chemical-process technology at its plastics plant in Baytown, Texas, near Houston. A decade ago, Mr. Babe says, a job opening typically would attract 100 applications. "These days I get about 10," he says. After screening, Bayer often finds that only a couple are qualified. Some jobs have been open six to nine months.

"This place is five acres, and it's three stories tall," says Donny Simon, 55, who has worked in the plant since 1988. It takes time to understand how all the pipes, valves, pumps and feedstock tanks work together and how to avoid explosions or other accidents. Technicians need basic math and science for such tasks as calculating the rate at which dyes and stabilizing agents need to be added for specially ordered batches of plastics.


Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering. About 5% of bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. are in engineering, compared with an average of about 20% in Asia, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. In the most recent comparison of math and science test scores of 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students trailed far behind those from China, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Germany.

Help Wanted on Factory Floor

May 6, 2011
Wall Street Journal

and see:

blue collar
The Race between Education and Technology

The Race between Education and Technology


patentlawyer said...

We read this story every few months but most of these "manufacturers" aren't telling the whole truth.

They aren't talking about how they gutted their own training programs in the 80's and 90's, because someone @ the WSJ/Harvard Business School told them to get lean, downsize, rightsize, or out source.

They aren't talking about how automation has really decimated their bread and butter parts and they have to move up to small runs of specialized parts @ high margins to make the money they're used to making.

They aren't talking about how most of their want ads require years of experience and often times a degree.

They aren't talking about how boring it is to work on a lathe for 8 hour stretches.

The reality is that they want experienced people, but they do not want to spend the money to train and retain their employees.

At least in Houston, there are more than enough people that can read blue prints, calculate sin/cos/tang/hyp if necessary. That area of Houston they're talking about is about 10 miles away from NASA and the aerospace/defense contractor hub in Clear Lake City.

We shouldn't have any sympathy for short sighted companies. Nor should we think that the US is in some kind of STEM bind.

There are plenty of out of work born in America engineers now, and plenty of would-be-engineers creamed by grade curves and weed out courses. If you head over to any of the comp sci/it/science/engineering fora, you'll see just how vast and deep the pool is.

Bonnie said...

Actually, in CS, enrollments have plummeted in the last few years, to the extent that CS departments are being closed. However, I agree with you on the role of companies. The reason students chose not to major in CS is that they saw their parents laid off from their tech jobs, forced to train their replacements in India (and I know several people personally that had to do that, including my husband). Companies refuse to invest in training or education for their technical employees, instead figuring they can be replaced once their 10 year technical lifespan has expired. Kids saw this happen, and decided that they would rather major in finance, where they can actually be paid well.

Catherine Johnson said...

They aren't talking about how they gutted their own training programs in the 80's and 90's, because someone @ the WSJ/Harvard Business School told them to get lean, downsize, rightsize, or out source.

The article did mention that companies had closed training programs.

Catherine Johnson said...

There are plenty of out of work born in America engineers now, and plenty of would-be-engineers creamed by grade curves and weed out courses.

I believe that.

SteveH said...

I agree with patentlawyer. I've seen this argument before, and once again, it's not clearly defined. I deal with many companies that bring in computer-aided design and CNC technology. There is more demand than supply. Companies don't like to train because they see these people move on to better paying jobs. Why pay to train someone in SolidWorks who will immediately leave? Just demand that education provide them ready to go. But what, exactly, are these skills? It's not trigonometry.

"Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering."

People with science, math, or engineering degrees won't fill these positions, and companies can train bright high school graduates to meet this demand.

Let's say that a company buys a CNC cutting machine and it comes with a program that nests geometry and generates the G-code to drive the machine. Is this taught in school? Also, where does this geometry come from, a 2D CAD drawing program, a 3D solid modeling program, or a surface modeling program like Rhino? Do they teach these programs in school? You don't learn this in high school geometry. Do schools teach the issues of geometry transfer that cost companies so much time and money?

Look at the skills that companies have in their job ads. Do they say "trigonometry"? Do they ask for people who have critical thinking skills? No. They want specialized skills that are rarely taught in schools. That's why our local vocational school (which offers college degrees) is so popular. They teach these applications and skills. Companies should ask for more vocational schools.

How many job ads say that they are looking for those who had good grades in trig and that they will train. No, you see ads with very specific software or machine skills required, loaded with all sorts of product names (like MasterCAM) and acronyms. Companies might want critical thinking skills, but what they have in the ads are specific product skills. That's why older workers are vulnerable. Companies don't care about general educational background. They care about the latest products and skills. It doesn't matter how experienced you are if that experience is with DEC's VMS. If you don't manage your career carefully, you will end up on a legacy path where the company will not pay for training. One company where my wife worked made a comment about how people over 40 are tired, overpaid, and don't know the latest technology.