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Skills Gap Machinists, We Have a Problem

It’s Black Friday, and usually, I’d be inspired to write something more topical about sales, because like many of you, I love a good holiday deal or two (really, as many as I can get) but this year, I have the Black Friday blues—and it has nothing to do with sales. This year, Black Friday has a much different meaning for me, and it all starts with a visit to a nearby high school to tour their metalworking shop. 

Since my visit, I’ve been walking around in a daze—in a state of shock that I just can’t shake. Uncensored reality hit me straight in the face, and I had to accept an inconceivable reality and its very real implications (I’ll get to these, soon…ish). 

But, like most things, let’s start at the beginning. 

The other week, my phone rang and it was a colleague of mine itching to relay a mind-boggling experience he’d had the previous day. The short of it? He’d been invited to a local high school to tour the metal shop by the temporary teacher, his friend who was covering the position (I swear this isn’t a friend of a friend of a friend kind of story), and what he saw horrified him. The teacher was looking for some help, as he was a woodworker by trade, but this place needed an overhaul. My colleague mentioned how cleaning and organizing would be a good place to start, only to learn that they’d already been at it for days. 

The whole experience left him unsettled: all he could think was, “this was what kids thought a metal shop looked like?” So after giving the situation some thought, he gave me a call and we made an appointment to go to the school together the following week. I kept thinking, “How bad could it be?” Famous last words. 

What I saw was worse than I imagined. I cannot and will not get into the details—and this was after another week of cleaning. But there is one thing I will say: funding issues aside, the state of this shop speaks to pride, not money, and this metal shop showed a lack of appreciation and commitment to the metal craft.  

One of the reasons my colleague felt compelled to call me was because of my ongoing struggles challenges with the skills gap, AKA the lack of skilled labour available to the manufacturing industry. It’s a topic I’m passionate about, and one I frequently speak about understanding and solving, and this visit brought me one step closer. 

If the skills gap was an infection, then school metal shops like this would be patient zero. I’m being dramatic—to a point—but in all seriousness, I believe that environments like this are one of the origins of the skills gap. There is nothing inspiring about this space, nothing motivating or invigorating. Nothing that speaks to what is possible or where a career in machining can take you. I looked around and saw nothing that would motivate a young person to pursue a career in machining or metal work. And if it wasn’t hard enough, all I could imagine was the horror a parent would feel after being in this shop in regards to the future of their child. “You want to work in this for the rest of your LIFE! Absolutely not!” That would be my reaction if I didn’t know better. 

I want them to know better.  

After touring the shop, I met the principal and we started talking about the conditions I had just observed. There was a genuine concern, but the principal had only been there for a few years and didn’t know what to do: from getting a qualified instructor to finding out what a shop should look like, the school was facing a lot of hurdles. It was clear to me that this problem had been around for a long time, and I wanted to help.

I invited the principal and some school personnel to Modern Engineering in an attempt to educate. This tour was a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. In my books, we need to put together a plan and start acting, and as you may imagine, the details to turning this around are going to be hard—but I have hope.

To those of you reading this, I encourage you to visit a local high school metal shop or shop that effects your field. Let me tell you right now, it’s going to be one hell of an eye-opener, but in order to change the optics of our industry and combat the skills gap, we need to address the problem at the grassroots—high schools.