Make Machining Seem Great Again

By E.C. Halgrimson

“Make America Great Again.” The vision that phrase invokes has half of America backing Donald Trump for President, who last year wasn’t a serious candidate, even in his own mind. News of Trump’s numerous character flaws pours out in the press, but many Americans couldn’t care less and will vote for him anyway — if not out of anger for the system, then in agreement with his shrewdly chosen catch phrase. That’s the power of a well thought out vision or campaign.

In 1996, during my Sophomore year of high school in Hinckley, Illinois, our class of 60 kids, made by combining two small towns’ 15-year-olds, was bused five miles to the area career center for an afternoon tour. “Just something to think about,” the teacher chaperoning us said. We were all glad to get out of class for the afternoon.

There were seven departments to visit; child care, graphic design, auto shop, auto-body painting, welding, some sort of medical program, and cosmetology. Interested students would apply that year, at age 15, and would be bused to the career center for training after lunch each day for both their junior and senior years.

I don’t remember much from the day trip, but the image of the dark dirty welding shop is still in my brain 20 years later. Gruff dirty young men ignored us as we watched them play with the blue fire for a few minutes. It did nothing but reinforce my stereotypes about trades, and strengthen my resolve to go to college and get far away from my insular farming community.

Most of the young teenagers who planned on going to the career center had no experience with the seven career paths available. They couldn’t imagine what that choice would mean for their future in terms of salary, workplace culture, vacation time, medical insurance, day-to-day duties, future opportunities, etc. There was no vision, no path laid out.

In high school, most young people are dreaming their biggest dreams for their future. At that age your teachers have been telling you that “you can be whatever you want” for years, and you still believe them. The tough reality of day-to-day demands and a 40-hour+ work week is not even on the radar.

At 15, the idea that learning machining could lead to careers in the aerospace, medical or automotive fields that require problem solving and creativity, such as those of a manufacturing engineer, setup person, or even a business owner, probably occurs to few people. As kids grow in tech savvy and exposure, we can give them a vision of what a career in machining can look like over a lifetime. We can make machining seem great again.

A commercial comes to my mind. A machining company’s owner in a suit with a staff of 150 employees addresses his team as he prepares to fly to a large board meeting where they will discuss details with NASA reps over parts. “Ever wanted to own your own business? flashes on the TV, “It starts here.” Then the picture shifts to the same young man in a work shirt and protective glasses bent over a CNC control learning the minutiae of his future business.

That’s an image I could see making America great again. Or, at least it could help people find their way to an undervalued profession that’s oozing with potential.

Question 1: How did you find your way to manufacturing?

Question 2: Would you want your child to pursue a career in the machining world?

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12 thoughts on “Make Machining Seem Great Again

  1. AvatarMindy M.

    While I don’t get to operate the equipment (I work in Marketing), I am very proud to work in this industry. I came to Okuma because I am fluent in Japanese, which made it a good fit. 27 years later, I still love seeing how our machines are being used and how things are made. Would I want my son in the business? I guess so… he works here, too!

  2. AvatarJosh

    This really strikes a chord with me. In high school, around the same time as you, I always had the impression that working in the trades or a factory or manufacturing in general was dirty and “not as good” as going to college and working with computers, or being an English teacher or any of the other various career paths I had envisioned for myself. Our teachers never told us about the trades, the implication among my peers was that the kids who went to the career center were “less than.” I look back on that mindset and could kick myself because it led me on a nearly ten year detour away from a career I eventually fell into and love every day.

    I was an above average student and I was a computer nerd and so I thought I would be a computer engineer, I even started attending Kettering University after high school. I quickly found out the world of computer engineering was not for me and rather than continue to spend money on an expensive school I enrolled at a community college. There I floundered as well, it was too much like high school and nothing interested me. I decided college wasn’t for me because I wasn’t passionate about anything. Some people are lucky to know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they’re young. I was not one of those people. I worked several jobs, at a hospital, at a cafe, in fast food, and then spent five years as a commercial painter but I knew I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.

    Through a brilliant flash of luck and some nepotism in my mid twenties I was offered a position at a small manufacturing firm. I started on the shop floor on a surface grinder and gradually learned as much about the company as I could. I was granted a golden opportunity and didn’t want to squander it. I’m still here today after 8 years and now I help run the place with the help of some fantastic employees. In that time I’ve run various grinders, CNC grinders, installed new machinery and figured out how to run it and train others to use it, programmed G-Code, done a bit of conversational programming on Hurco’s, made our website, designed machine manuals and product literature and have done some really fun problem solving.

    I wish that I had known in high school what manufacturing was, and all the opportunities in this business to use my mind as well as my hands. I wish someone had told me being a computer nerd would translate really well into running CNC machines. I wish I had found this passion I have earlier and had been able to complete a degree in CAD/CAM but at the same time I’m glad I didn’t because I got to end up where I am today. I do wish though that more kids like me could know the truth about manufacturing, that there is an amazing and gratifying feeling to finding the solution to a particular manufacturing problem, and helping to build a real object that you can be proud of. Turning your skills with a computer into making brilliant tangible objects. That it’s not all dirty, that it’s not standing in front of an assembly line. Manufacturing and machining are awesome fields to work in and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be involved with this stuff every single day.

  3. AvatarMisterchipster

    Started sweeping floors and doing cleanup fresh out of grade school, morphed into a part time job in high school. Had some innate mechanical ability and with “connections” went full time when I graduated. With a partner bought the company 16 years later. We’ve had our ups and downs like everyone else but have never looked back. Lost our share of the manufacturing pie in the 70s-80s to overseas competition but have always stuck to “fair, firm, and friendly” We have seen a resurgence of re shoring and have many of our original customers to this day.

    All my kids have worked for me thru high school and college, one has stayed and has manufacturing in his blood.

  4. AvatarJames Morton

    I was 15 when I started an apprenticeship in Leeds England in 1957. My dad put my brother and I up to this and said that learning a trade would keep us safe from unemployment. My Uncle Willy thought the idea stunk as he worked at Crabtrees as a machinist and said it was hard graft cranking handles all day. I am now 74 and still working. The work area has changed, most persons working in manufacturing go home alot cleaner now. My children use to say that I smelt of machine oil during those “good old days”. Machine Tools are very addictive and still have my interest and always will. It is good to know how to make things.
    James Morton

  5. AvatarMarc Klecka

    Emily – Your column strikes a chord, as I have always felt that the lack of career counseling at the high school level has cost many dearly. College is stressed over the trades, leaving a void which will be felt for years to come, and also leaving many unemployed (underemployed?) college graduates.

    Question 1 – I was fortunate to be accepted into an apprentice program at the Warner & Swasey Company/Cleveland. This is an opportunity I will forever cherish.
    Question 2 – My son works with our machine tool distribution company, and has brought many new and exciting ideas to our table.

  6. AvatarBeth

    Career counseling is still pretty much non-existent, both for people not going to college and those who are. Most college graduates get a degree in something they like with no clue what they will do with that degree after they graduate. No one talks to them about career paths or tells them that jobs in some areas require advanced degrees or that the right combination of a major and some minors can make them employable or anything. If the kids haven’t figured it out on their own (and how many 18-22 year olds have done that?) they are not getting much help from their colleges. That is why so many of our college graduates cannot find jobs, end up doing non-skilled jobs, or get a job in the same field as their degree only to find out they hate it.

    As for where I would like to see my kids working–I wouldn’t care where they worked. I care that they have a job that they like and find satisfying, and it doesn’t matter what it is or what kind of a company they do it for. Working in a job you hate sucks the life out of you, and the longer you do it the more you hate it. It spills over into every aspect of your life. Everyone should have work they like and find satisfying, and that is what career counseling should focus on–helping people discover the kind of work they like to do and getting them the training they need to get jobs in that field.

  7. AvatarChris Arnold

    I got my start fresh out of high school in 1977 with a small job shop but moved quickly to a large valve manufacturer. I received and completed a Tool Maker apprenticeship. This ultimately allowed me to start my own business about 10 years ago. My dad was a machinist for 40 years and my mom was a Rosy the Riveter during the war and retired as a very respected grinder at a popular machine tool builder. Manufacturing was pretty much all I knew. Ironically, my high school guidance counselor wouldn’t let me go to the local BOCES as I was “too bright” and put me in college prep schedule. I was however, able to have a minor in Industrial Arts. These sentiments are often still echoed by counselors today as advice to bright students.
    Although this has been a good profession for me and always provided for my family, I have encouraged my children to stay away from it. Things started to change in the 80″s when our president stated that “we should transition to a service economy”. It also does’t help that our retirements are mostly tied to the stock market. That is, for example, we’re happy that an stock that we have invested in goes up after it’s announced that a factory has shut down and the jobs have gone out of country making the company more profitable. We all have see this happen, but turn a blind eye as long as our portfolio remains strong. Nope, my kids should stay away!!!

  8. AvatarDonna H

    I had a strong interest in math and up to my junior year in high school thought my only options was a teacher. A state college had a career day for Women in Engineering that open upped my opportunities. So decided to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering until my senior year when thru the high school career center I got a job working 1/2 days in a Aerospace Manufacturing facility. My view changed again as I fell in love with metal manufacturing. I was the first generation college student so finances were a concern so continued to work in the factory full time and local college at night. Received a Engineering Management degree in 1985 and have worked supporting Aerospace manufacturing ever since. Minus 2 years in Automotive which was not my love.

    Would recommend a career center to any high school student. You never know where it may take you.

  9. Avatarjerry

    I came from a poor family. I started work at 10 delivering papers, shoveling snow and mowing lawns. Then on to janitoring, shoveling coal, stock boy, hod carrier and laborer. There were no job fairs or career days. But throughout those years, I had teachers who encouraged me with my interest in writing. My last job while finishing journalism school was running basic machine tools in a fabricating company. Everyone of those jobs taught me how things are made and how the system works. Together, all of it helped make me successful in owning a marketing communications agency that’s been in my family for 3 generations.

  10. AvatarMark

    “an undervalued profession that’s oozing with potential”

    I disagree wholeheartedly. The amount of work we have lost offshore to China, Taiwan, Korea, etc. is staggering. And it’s not cheap, simple work, it’s complicated, intricate parts for aerospace, medical, etc.

    The future for manufacturing in America is not great, especially for American job shops. I wouldn’t recommend it for my kids.

    That’s the way I see it.

  11. AvatarRick

    Started running a lathe before I was 10 in the family business.
    Studied electronics in HS and fortunately found out that I did not like that. Went on to study tool & die, then industrial engineering.
    I now run the family business.
    I hope my daughter considers studying engineering.
    We’ll see…


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