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Don’t Blame The Schools For Closing Machining & Manufacturing Programs

A young girl shows a passion for sculpting, so her parents arrange for her to attend art classes. A young boy attends a poetry reading, and begins a life-long devotion to literature via a classical education. Another young girl discovers the beauty, precision and practical wisdom of mathematics, and she is drawn to refine her talents in physics, astronomy or related curricula.

These young people have options. There are paths. They’re fortunate. There are support systems and programs where they can be polished, mentored and taught through to specialized, rewarding careers.

But if you’re predisposed to manufacturing or entrepreneurship, God help you. Because for the most part, you’re on your own.

I just read an article titled “Elimination of tech program draws protest” that describes the lack of interest in the machining & technical programs at Pennsylvania’s Middle Bucks Institute of Technology. It seems that not enough students are entering the machining & manufacturing program there, and MBIT just can’t afford to sustain it anymore.

So, they’re shuttin’ it down. They’re gonna send the last 5 students in the program to a similar program across the county somewhere to finish up. Counselors  are standing by, the article says, to advise the 7 students due to enter the program next year and ” … help them chose a different program.”

It also reports how Michael Klesh, a past graduate of the closing MBIT program and current successful machining business owner, is protesting the program’s elimination & raising funds to prevent it. It takes $144,000 per annum to run the thing. Mike’s collected about $13k so far.

Good luck with that, Mike.

And so it goes, across the country. Interest and understanding of how and why things are made are muffled these days, and that disconnection is playing out in a lot of schools, in too many places.

“Gee, Johnny – we’re sure sorry that we can’t help you learn to build next generation stealth technology or make green energy solutions actually work on a meaningful scale. But instead, we’re gonna teach you to give the best pedicure in Bucks County!”

I wrote recently about how our factories acted as postgraduate schools for the mechanically and manufacturing inclined, and how losing production can’t only be measured on a balance sheet. Seeing programs fold like this is frustrating beyond words, because we’ve yet to feel the real impact. And some of us know it.

But as frustrated as it makes us, we can’t blame the schools for this. For the most part, they’re following markets and they can’t be expected to fulfill their responsibilities to all by throwing resources and cash at programs that aren’t attracting any interest. It’d be like you throwing your assets at a market that had no chance of creating value or profit.

If we’re honest and genuine, we should point our collective finger at ourselves, and our culture. It’s the fault of the collective that our own cultural values create less and less inspiration for working with our hands, from generation to generation.

I’d hoped that the recession might have helped with this some, that we’d have reacted like our parents and grandparents did during the Great Depression – it seemed that they learned the value of a buck, understood the reward of compensation for  something tangible, and found out first hand that there’s no free lunch. But we rarely get those lessons, do we?

There are still places and programs with those values. The Precision Manufacturing Institute in Meadville, PA, is like that.  It’s a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, stocked with modern technology and sustained by the tradition of a community that is the cradle of the US tool & die industry. Its citizens didn’t just grow up around manufacturing – they built and nurtured it. The shops & plants of Meadville support the PMI, in partnership with its local government. It’s an holistic, koi pond environment that understands how to “feed” itself. The culture supports the culture.

But how long before the PMI starts to feel the realities that their friends across the state in Bucks county were slapped with? Maybe the PMI won’t suffer too much, but I’m not as confident about that as I once was.

If for no other reason, look at where this is happening – Pennsylvania. This isn’t Guam or Nevada (no offense to anyone in those fine places) – this is Pennsylvania. PENNSYLVANIA! If it can happen there …

Our culture today supports quick fixes, and encourages observation rather than participation. That’s counter to what manufacturers are and what they do, and maybe that’s part of the problem. We’ve learned to live without doing for ourselves.

But whatever your own take is about STEM education and our perilous lack of new manufacturers, understand that blaming the schools isn’t right. WE have to put the M back in STEM.

The schools can only work with what we send them.

AJ Sweatt
Website
6 Comments
  1. AJ –

    OK… so now I’m hooked on your writing. This is the 3rd post of yours I’ve read today and I’ve yet to say, “Yeah, but… ” and there’s a lot of “Amen!”

    You might be interested in a Lean Nation episode that I hosted a few months back – the topic was the role and opportunities for young women to enter manufacturing… my basic premise for discussion was that Lean is a great equalizer… rewards real results, creates true meritocracies.

    Send me an email if you want an mp3 of the show…

    Best,

    Linda

    • Linda, you’re too kind. And thanks again for the shout-out on Lean Nation yesterday. You guys do some fine work yourselves, and I was honored. Still am, as a matter of fact.

      I’d love to listen to that episode. I’ve always been perplexed by the lack of diversity in manufacturing – just doesn’t make much sense. So, yeah – I’ll get an email off to you right away.

      Thanks for the visit here, too. If y’all ever need anything, gimme a shout.

      AJ

  2. Bullseye, AJ! too few girls for sure, and incorrect perception among students & parents. Have you seen the Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program at Toyota in Georgetown, KY? If you are ever up this way, give me a shout and I will be happy to take you over for a visit. It is a true model of secondary/postsecondary/industry collaboration to encourage students to choose manufacturing, STEM, engineering, technology, etc ….and provides opportunity for multiple career pathways.

    Love your blog! I worked in manufacturing for almost 20 years in US, Mexico & China…and now serve the Commonwealth of Kentucky as the state director for Project Lead the Way PLTW), the best STEM curriculum out there. Manufacturing is a component of the PLTW curriculum, which excites students nationwide about STEM, including manufacturing.

    Cheers to you,
    Dianne

    • Dianne, I would love to see that program up close. I’m often up in that neck of the woods (lived in Cincinnati for years, travel there often on business and to visit family & friends) – so you may live to regret the invitation. HA! I’ll ping you before my next trip and we’ll go from there. Thanks for that.

      And thanks for the visit and note. I’m familiar with PLTW, too, and I applaud you guys for leading the charge. Great work.

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