Camp Make-It-Yourself

Gadget Camp — a week of band saws and factory field trips — is trying to interest kids in manufacturing careers, reports the New York Times.

Manufacturers . . . complain that few applicants can operate computerized equipment, read blueprints and solve production problems. And with the baby boomers starting to retire, these and other employers worry there will be few young workers willing or able to replace them.

Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, a foundation affiliated with the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association,  is financing 10 Gadget camps this summer, including one in Illinois for girls only.

Across the country, a handful of companies, nonprofit groups, public educational agencies and even science museums are trying to make manufacturing seem, well, fun. Focusing mainly on children aged 10 to 17, organizations including the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pa.; and Stihl, a maker of chain saws and other outdoor power equipment in Virginia Beach, Va., run camps that let students operate basic machinery, meet workers and make things.

Antigone Sharris, who came up with the idea for the all-girls Gadget camp, worked  in manufacturing before becoming an instructor in electronics, welding and computer-aided machinery at Triton College, a community college that hosted the camp.

 “Girls don’t naturally gravitate toward engineering,” said Ms. Sharris, a jolly and patient instructor who interspersed practical tips on using a band saw or a drill press with casual explanations of fractions, the concept of leverage and Newton’s laws.

. . .  16 girls aged 11 to 15 designed and constructed a cat feeder, a candy dispenser and various pieces of jewelry and music boxes, using foam board, wood, metal, fiberglass and PVC pipe.

“Not letting your children learn the hands-on component of the theory of science is killing us as a nation,” Ms. Sharris said. “You have to stop giving kids books and start giving them tools.”

Girls learned about manufacturing salaries, which start at $40,000 in the area, and visited nearby factories.

Stop giving kids books? I hope not. But I do think children need more opportunities to make things — real things, not virtual representations.

I took shop in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. We all learned to use a band saw. I made a set of shelves, a lamp and an inadvertently Dali-esque checkerboard, though my fiberglass ring was sucked into the buffer and never seen again. We did technical drawing too. I don’t know if it produced any engineers or carpenters, but we were very proud of our creations.


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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Oooh! I want to go! I do know that one problem factories around here have is that there aren’t enough skilled machinists or people able to become skilled machinists to go around.

    A machinist needs to be able to handle algebra 2/ Trig. Some of the factories will even PAY for the math training, if you have the prerequisites. But too many kids can’t handle the math or are unwilling to learn the extra math. So 15-20$ an hour jobs that only require a high school diploma go begging.

    (Maybe if more of the college grads stuck as waiters and Baristas looked into Machinist careers? But it’s a different lifestyle— you need to be punctual, detail oriented, drug-free and willing to work overtime (with pay)…….

  2. Engineering programs used to be full of farm kids (farm boys, pretty much) who already had some fix-it and build-it skills learned with farm machinery, repairing fences, etc.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Article yesterday about the shortage of, and the efforts the employers make to find them, oil field workers either in the Bakken field area, or in Texas. Unemployment in those areas is close to zero.
    The lowest or least-skilled oil field workers make good money and use skills not necessarily taught in school. Others need, as Dierdre points out, various kinds of academic skills, sometimes instead of, sometimes in addition to, physical, hands-on skills.
    Presuming Obama is a one-term president, and that the EPA can be reined in, we may have a jobs boom in oil and related industries as we switch from buying blood oil from the Middle East to buy ethical oil from Canada. That would mean pub ed would either give at least a fake pass at vocational skills, if not do it well, or proclaim its irrelevance to the folks not planning on college. Again.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Richard– I was under the impression that a lot of the oil companies were willing to train on the job BUT (big but) it is hard, dirty work. And if you’re working on rigs out in the gulf it means being away from your family for long periods of time. Fine for a younger man who’s not married yet, but once you have a wife and kids, calculations change.

      On the other hand, that’s why these jobs pay so much. In general (with the exception of government Bureaucrats) the more difficult, dangerous, and inconvenient a job is, the more it pays. The more regular the hours and pleasant the conditions, the less it pays. (We think about this a lot b/c my husband is a librarian– when we figured out what he makes compared to the lawyers we know, we realized that their hourly rates aren’t that different– it’s just that he doesn’t need to work as many hours—and the rest of his lower pay is pretty much accounted for by the lack of stress and the increased flexibility.)

      Anyway, I wonder– is it that we can’t educate people to be oil rig workers, or that with the breakdown of the “protestant work ethic”, we can’t find anyone who’s willing to work that hard when a single guy could just as easily (in many parts of the country) work 20 hours a week at McDonalds and room with 2 or 3 friends and have all the booze, pizza, video games and sports via satellite TV that a man could possibly want? Why work hard to get ahead, when treading water has so little pain to it?

  4. “Maybe if more of the college grads stuck as waiters and Baristas looked into Machinist careers?”

    What percentage of college graduates are “stuck as waiters and Baristas”, yet are turning up their noses at “Machinist careers”? Show them an acceptable wage and career path and they’ll be there.

    A friend of mine, by the way, is a machinist by trade. He runs a small shop, about 20 employees. His biggest problem is finding office staff, not people to stand behind his machines. The work is physically taxing, and he himself has suffered a severe cumulative back injury that his doctors think is likely to land him in a wheelchair. He’s constantly having to justify to his customers why they should buy quality American-made parts, not cheaper, lesser quality parts from an overseas manufacturer. He makes a good living, but it’s a long way from The Life of Riley.

    “…the shortage of, and the efforts the employers make to find them, oil field workers either in the Bakken field area…”

    I expect that we’re talking about dirty, noisy, physically taxing labor that tends to separate workers from their families. You would apparently prefer that the jobs be even dirtier, given your dream of reduced environmental regulation. The question is raised, unless you are posting from your workplace in an oil field, why aren’t you off to Texas for a job as an oil field worker? Not your thing? Too physically demanding? Not enough money? You don’t want to spend that much time away from your family? You have better options?

    The issue isn’t so much, “We can’t find the workers”. It’s “We don’t want to pay enough to attract a larger population of qualified workers.” In the oil fields, something as small as a $1/hour raise might bring in a larger applicant pool, but it would be difficult for an employer to avoid giving a similar raise to its existing workforce, hence a dilemma.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Aaron. Enough with the ad homs, although if that’s all you’ve got….
    I’m retired. I did dirty work in college. I did dirty work in the Army.
    The EPA is not an environmental protection agency. For example, since Perry came on scene, they’ve begun to enforce dubious regs which will give Texas rolling blackouts. They’re political hacks.
    As Obama said, he wanted to make energy more expensive and destroy the coal industry. Not the same as cleaning up the environment. Which you know, so let’s not be playing the holier than thou game.
    See the dust bowl/ delta smelt catastrophe in California. Some water was turned back on, according to the votes on Obamacare.
    Figure we know this stuff, Aaron, and save your reproaches for somebody who can be fooled. Not sure where you’ll find anybody like that, but you ought to try.
    Oil field work is hard and dirty and pays well. But there are some guys who wouldn’t do it for a million. You’ll note that the military has no use for just over half the age cohort they’d like to recruit from. Physically, mentally, or morally unacceptable. Couch potatoes with no ambition living in their folks’ basement aren’t going to go to the oil biz no matter the wage, nor are they going to be trainable on site if they do show up.
    And those with absolutely no skills save those learned in K-12 are going to be a lot harder to train than guys with some skills, even if only somewhat related.
    Lastly, hard dirty work is for guys who picture themselves doing hard, dirty work successfully, and kids growing up in the ‘burbs spending their time on computer games aren’t going to have that attitude. Not without an intervening experience.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Aaron– No, Machinist’s don’t live “the life of Riley” but it’s a decent middle-class career for someone who doesn’t want to spend his life in a cubicle. I’d guess that a lot of young college grads working in the service industry don’t even realize these jobs exist, actually. If you’re the child of white collar workers and spent your whole life on the college track in and East Coast suburb, you don’t meet anyone who works these jobs. Your worldview is “Office Job or Janitor.” Kids in small Midwestern cities are more likely to see these opportunities, because they live in neighborhoods with and go to church with machinists.

    And, of course, there’s the problem that small machine shops don’t usually set up where young people want to live. After all, “Small town Indiana” is not particularly glamorous (and it’s a difficult place for singles to find spouses.)

  7. “I took shop in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. We all learned to use a band saw. I made a set of shelves, a lamp and an inadvertently Dali-esque checkerboard…”

    That’s hilarious!

    I would definitely send the kids to one of these camps, although I’m not very excited about the cat feeder or the other “girl” projects.

    My husband does a lot of stuff at home with the kids, from making a telescope for our youngest to repairing his sister’s remote-controlled car. They’re learning a lot.

    This was the second summer that I’ve sent my oldest to sewing camp. Last year she made pillows and pillowcases and so forth and this year she did an intermediate course where they made a quilted bag with a zipper. I was very impressed. And she likes it! I’m going to keep sending her as long as I can. The sewing places offer courses for bigger kids that include sewing garments, and of course there are even more class offerings for adult seamstresses. It’s a somewhat archaic skill, given the cheapness of clothing nowadays, but 1) it involves a real machine and 2) it’s easier to learn stuff when you’re young and 3) I expect sewing is very good for developing spatial skills 4) sewing curtains and home decor is cost-effective.

  8. Soapbox0916 says:

    I would have loved to go to a camp like this and I am female.

    Well as someone who lives in small city Indiana with lots of small towns nearby, tons of machinists have been laid off, so I am not sure small town Indiana is where these machinist jobs are right now, but I get your point. Tons of engineers were also laid off along with the machinists to make matters worse.

    Most of these trained machinists that lost their jobs have moved on to other jobs, so I think the skills get lost. The job market for machinists seems to be either boom or bust over time for these jobs, and they can be so specialized, to the point that the specialization either makes a particular machinist worthless or highly valued.

    How many of these jobs are really willing to take someone without experience? I don’t mean what they advertise, not what they do in special cases, but what they are really willing to do in real life. We do need to go back to the day of having more on the job training, expecting everyone to have a certificate or college degree for a job limits flexibility.

  9. Tax and immigration policy of the last decade or so has been to move production (and, increasingly, engineering) offshore and import cheaper engineers to replace costly Americans.  American engineers over about 40 often have to shift careers because they can no longer find employment in their field.

    The resulting low wages, uncertain employment and abbreviated careers have done a lot to push American students into fields like law and finance which are currently favored by policy.  Encouraging kids to go into manufacturing in today’s climate is setting them up for misery, I fear.

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    IP issues are one huge place where American manufacturers could really make a place for themselves… right now, part of the cost of doing business with China is knowing that they’ll steal your designs and sell them under their own label for less. At some point, the cost of the IP violations may be high enough to make US manufacturing worthwhile again…. (here’s hoping…)