05 August, 2012

Shop Class

I went through junior high (they're called "middle schools" these days) in the mid-1980's.  Personal computers existed, but were really nothing more than glorified calculators.  During the time I was in junior high, shop classes were referred to as "industrial arts" and these classes, though unknown to me at the time, were on their death bed.  I grew up in a manufacturing town where the middle class was dominant.  The majority of the families lived comfortably, but money was usually tight.  Fathers fixed thing themselves and built a lot of things that were needed.  It was quite normal for sons to help their fathers around the house.  Fathers would teach their sons about tools, how to use them and care for them.  As a boy I also learned about tools and their use through Cub Scouts.  Somewhere from my generation to the current generation, these skills have largely been lost.  The skills my father taught me I am quite sure he learned from his father.  When I reached junior high, it was only normal to take shop classes.  In seventh grade (my first year of junior high) there was a series of classes that were mandatory for everyone.  Girls and boys.  There was a shop class where basic metal and woodworking skills were taught, an art class which, again, taught basic art skills and a "home economics" class that taught simple sewing, cooking etc.  I, and many others, found the shop class and "home-ec" class to be a breeze.  Most of the things that were being taught, we already knew how to do.  As previously mentioned, my father had already taught me about tools and their use.  But let's not forget about Mom!  I learned a lot from her as well.  The home-ec class was a breeze because, due to my Mom, I already knew how to cook and sew.  The art class was the only one that was all new to me, but I soaked it up like a sponge.  As rudimentary as all these classes were, I still draw on those skills as a 40 year old diesel mechanic.  For example, recently I was at work and had a thermostat housing that was warped.  I pulled out a file and started draw filing it until it was flat again.  It occurred to me, while I was filing away, that I had learned that skill in school, at age 13.  Before I reached 16, I had operated a table saw, scroll saw, band saw, power planer, drill press, wood lathe, metal lathe, power hack saw, box and pan break, hand operated metal formers, soldering irons (the furnace heated type) and a whole slew of hand tools.  It was quite normal.  Enter the computer age.

Another skill I learned during my junior high years was computers.  I had been exposed to the Apple II computers in sixth grade, but it didn't amount to much.  It was simply learning how to turn it on, insert a floppy disc and load a program.  Similar exposure happened in seventh grade, but with IBM computers.  The big change happened at home.  My brother brought home a Commodore Vic20, probably intending it to be a gaming machine (if you could call a Vic20 a "gaming machine").  Like everything else of his I used it when he wasn't around.  Even then, the Vic20 was almost outdated.  The limited amount of software available for it was out of my reach since I didn't have any money.  What I could do was buy the occasional magazine "Run" which was all about Commodore computers.  Programs were included in the magazine... in print form.  They were all in Basic and had to be typed in line by line.  I had no storage device so each program was typed in, debugged, run and then lost when the computer was turned off.  I taught myself Basic this way.  Another skill that would lead me down different paths.  Upon reaching high school, a computer lab appeared.  I never got to spend much time there but it was a strange mix of Apple and IBM products.  Meeting certain credit requirements and still retaining classes that I wanted such as band and auto shop prevented me from taking any "industrial arts" classes until I was a senior.  I skipped the shop classes the first two years in favor of auto shop.  I wanted to know how cars worked.  My senior year, however, I had an open spot and signed up for a welding class because I wanted to know how to weld.  I had grown up knowing my father did some welding at the local factory (only spot welding as I found out later in life) and one brother went to the local tech school's welding program.  I, of course, wanted to emulate my heroes.  I suppose it was a sign of changing times that the welding class was cancelled due to a lack of people signing up for it.  In exchange I was thrown into a general metals course with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.  I was a little disappointed, but it turned out to be a great class.  Some things I already knew how to do, but I learned two skills that would help me in later life.  I did learn how to weld in that class, but only in a general sense.  I learned how to use arc and mig welders and also how to gas weld with a torch.  Gas welding I had a problem with.  I just could not get the hang of it.  A freshman showed me how he did it and it all fell into place.  I also learned how to cast metal in that class.  I've never used that skill since, but I know how to do it.  Sort of.  The things I was learning in metal shop and the things I was learning next door in auto shop would, some day in the future, come together.

These days, the fear of students getting hurt on machinery and the thoughts that there is no practical reason to teach children "shop" skills, has led to shop classes disappearing from the schools.  I find that to be a serious problem.  Granted, the US isn't the manufacturing giant it once was, there is still a need for people in the skilled trades.  Digital technology, bio technology, financial management are where we are concentrated now.  But who will build the labs, the office buildings, the equipment and furniture inside them?  What about the factories that make the equipment and the tooling the factories use?  Who will maintain these labs and office buildings as they age?  The lack of interest in skilled trades as a profession has caused an imbalance that needs to be corrected.  Societies view on the skilled trades, among other issues has a lot do with the problem.  Shop classes have long been looked down on as a place for the kids who aren't smart enough, or aren't ambitious enough, to go to college.  Because of this view, manufacturing jobs are usually low-paying.  Who wants low pay?  Workers used to want to get into a factory, or cabinet shop, or machine shop etc.  I also think that parenting has a little to do with the problem.  Parents, naturally, want their children to have a better life than they had.  Since manufacturing jobs disappeared overseas, parents would do all they could to give their children the chance to go to college and learn how to be accountants, doctors, lawyers, scientists, computer programmers etc.  These people are needed, too.  With the rapid increase in all technologies, there needs to be people to fill those positions.  What good is a manufacturing job if there isn't a doctor who finds, through his research, a need for, say, a new heart implant?  The doctor finds the need for a product, an engineer designs it, a scientist comes up with a new material for the product, the accountants figure out how to pay for it, the marketing people figure out how to sell it and the people in the factory figure out how to make it.  Sometimes you really have to dig, but most professions are intertwined with each other to some degree.

There's long been a stereotype of the office worker looking down on the skilled trades, and the skilled trades trash-talking the office worker.  It needs to stop.  Sure, I might not make the same money as a diesel mechanic that an attorney makes, but I don't expect to.  An attorney would have spent, easily, twice the time in school that I put in.  Not too mention the amount of money they had to spend getting through school.  They SHOULD be taking home more money than me.  I will admit to trash-talking the professional trades in my younger days, but as an older (and, I hope, wiser) man, I see that everyone has their place.  When I was in school I preferred the shop classes, but I also learned so much from the other classes.  The typing class I took in tenth grade is a good example.  I took it partly because I wanted to learn how to type, but I also signed up because I figured spending an hour each day looking at girls (typing was still considered a "woman's job" even in the '90s!" wasn't a bad thing.  Oh, how I underestimated that class.  I took to it like stink to shit and, much to my surprise, got a lot of good grades.  That typing class went hand in hand with an English class I had.  More specifically, with the teacher of that class.  This teacher gave us a weekly vocabulary list of 20 to 30 words.  Through the week we learned each word.  How to spell it, its definition and how to use it.  Later, I purposely took a class on "Futuristic Literature" i.e. science fiction, because it was taught by the same teacher.  I have a larger than normal vocabulary due to that man and I am forever grateful.  As in shop class, the vocabulary lists were a skill that would be practical in later life.  I only wish I had given more attention to previous English classes.  If I had, my grammar and punctuation skills would be much better. 

To wind this up, this blog is a perfect example of what I have just written about.  I'll let it sink in for a few minutes while I go take a break.  Figure it out yet?  The fact that I'm writing this blog and the fact you're reading it is a tribute to many, many people.  The people who created computers.  The people who made the world wide web possible.  The people who design, manufacture, ship, sell and repair computers.  The people who build the offices, ships, trucks, labs and factories where the computer industry does its thing.  The teachers who taught us how to build things, how to write, how to spell, how to add and subtract, how to use computers and design software.  Without so many people sharing and using their skills, I would not be writing this blog, nor you reading it.