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Take heart - our education system can turn out qualified students - but will it?

Our secondary education is turning out a few students capable of tackling world class manufacturing systems, but certainly not enough.

It was the right thing to do to eliminate high school sewing classes for young women and type setting classes for young men. But the problem was and remains that, few within the education system had the foresight to see that it wasn't the elimination of "shop" that we needed, but the transformation of shop from a system of teaching 19th century topics to one of preparing students for 21st century jobs. Every era has need of researchers, designers, developers, constructors, operators and maintainers; the difference is that the underlying technical topics evolve and change and education must evolve and change with them. The idea that got traction during the space race that all students should attend a four year college was either a huge marketing coup by the society of college presidents or a huge dumbing-down of the importance of secondary education; or both.

From time to time, I have the privilege of witnessing high school students demonstrating mastery of the kinds of skills that could keep America competitive in manufacturing technologies. This past month, I had several such opportunities. Upon visiting a Vo-Tech classroom one student that I came upon had completed his nine month program in electrical, mechanical, fluid power and PLC technologies in just seven months. With the instructor's encouragement, this student had moved on to advanced PLC topics and was programming analog inputs and outputs on the day that I visited. He told me how easy it was to create functions in just a few lines of code, indicating that he understood the underlying concepts and was able to create what I would consider 'elegant code'. This student is headed for the Air Force with more PLC experience than many students get when graduating with a 2 or 4 year college degree.


I also had the privilege this month of participating as a mechatronics judge in the SkillsUSA Pennsylvania statewide competition. We didn't have as many schools competing in our area as there were in cosmetology, but instructors and school administrators kept coming by throughout the day to see what the mechatronics competition was about. It was about students working in teams to solve electrical, mechanical, fluid power, control and logic problems. It was about passing a written test, and designing, building, programming, starting up and troubleshooting real electro-pneumatic, PLC controlled systems that students had never seen before, all under the pressure of time and under the constant watchful eye of the judges. If that doesn't sound like the typical day of a maintenance technician in a modern packaging plant, I don't know what does.


While most high schools ignore training young people for gold collar jobs in industrial maintenance and manufacturing operations, a few are doing an excellent job. In many cases, these schools have given an unusual amount of freedom to administrators and instructors who are not career educators, but are folks who have been recycled from industry. These transplants have been responsive to industry needs and have tailored curriculum to include meaningful topics that help students to appreciate math, science and language as it applies to contemporary real life situations.

As industry professionals, we need to make our voices and our needs heard so that more schools will teach young people the skills and knowledge that they will need in the workplaces of the future. In many cases, drastic changes in the education system as we know it will be required. We must not shirk from our responsibilities to future generations. 

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