The Problem Facing the Machine Tool Trade Today

For the past forty years years high schools all over the nation have been closing their machine shop programs. Small class size, expensive shop equipment leasing, restricted funding*, and an emphasis on four-year-college transfer has led to the demise of most manual arts programs in our high schools. High school counselors now direct 100% of their students towards going on to college and getting a BA. In fact, the number of students going on to a four-year college is their measure of success. Because of this the well of potential machinists has gone dry and large companies have simply abandoned their traditional high-school-to-work apprenticeship programs. The long-standing partnership of student, high school, and manufacturing has evaporated

The machinists who became part of the program twenty-five years ago are now getting ready to retire. Some have called this the "graying of the machine shop work force" because the average age of a top quality machinist is 50+. As these machinists retire they will not only leave a void in the work force they will also leave a void in the mentoring pool which is the real mainstay of on-the-job training.

Today the preponderance of machine tool instruction is at the community college level but they too are under economic pressure to abandon expensive programs. In fact many community colleges have already given up their welding and machine shop curriculums.

Another problem is that there seems to be a prevalent feeling among the masses that machining is an unnecessary and dying trade and there will be no need for machinists in the future. Although it is hard to project a grand outlook like the 60/70s aerospace boom it should be noted that this trade is an important field in every industrialized nation in the world no matter their history or current economy. For example today there are machinists in Hungary, England, Argentina, and South Africa and they all play a vital role in the maintenance of the infrastructure of their country as well as assisting in industrial processes (no matter how small their share of the international manufacturing pie). Machinists are respected and paid extremely well in these nations. It is a skilled and prideful trade worldwide and each country has a need to train and replace them.

As an aside please note that at one time England was the manufacturing center of the world. They built the most machinery and employed the greatest number of machinists (called “mechanics” in that time). America took that honor from them and became the world’s most productive manufacturing nation and biggest employer of machinists. Then along came Japan followed by Taiwan followed by Korea and China. With all of these changes there was never, at any time, a total destruction of the manufacturing capabilities of any nation. They simply lost their leadership. Today Great Britain has a very highly skilled and productive force of machinists even though they no longer lead the world in manufacturing.

So what about the United States today? Have we moved to a “service economy” void of even the most minimal need for industrial production? Or is that all a futurists’ pipe dream? The answer is that it really doesn’t matter. We have a shortage of machinists in this country not because we are going to explode again as a manufacturing powerhouse and not because our aerospace and defense industry will keep us alive for another century. We need more machinists today because there are nearly NONE coming up to replace this country's core needs. For every 100 machinist we had in the 60s and 70s we may need only 20 today. But we don’t even have TWO in training now. All of the good machinists have gray hair and are getting ready to retire and we don’t have anyone to replace them.

.It is my hope that the machinist does not become another lost American heritage.

Ron Smith

The Virtual Machine Shop

*Real Cost