Change the perception

The November 1999 "Forum" letter, "Encourage your children," by James A. Haigh, begs another opinion. While Mr. Haigh makes several good points, I believe he misses a few significant realities. Mr.

By Staff March 1, 2000

The November 1999 “Forum” letter, “Encourage your children,” by James A. Haigh, begs another opinion.

While Mr. Haigh makes several good points, I believe he misses a few significant realities. Mr. Haigh suggests that parents accept the possibility that their children may not possess the “mental capacity” for professional careers. Even if this were realistic, how many parents would subscribe to this concept? What parent would encourage his or her child to lower their career aspirations because they “don’t have what it takes” for professional endeavors? Many of our brightest minds have come from unlikely circumstances. Albert Einstein, as a child, was considered unlikely to succeed academically. Ponder his contribution to science. Most parents would persuade their offspring to “be all they can be.” This isn’t just a catchy marketing phrase; it helps set the stage for achievement.

I also question Mr. Haigh’s assumption that maintenance tradespeople require considerably lower mental capacity and skill levels than those in the traditional engineering realms. Manufacturing and processes have evolved to a level that demand significantly higher mental skill sets to maintain modern microprocessor controlled machine tools and equipment. It takes much more than just a “mechanical aptitude” to maintain modern equipment and Saturday afternoon mechanics don’t flourish in this environment. Also, crafts- people are taking on responsibilities — including specifying and ordering equipment and parts and designing and implementing continuous improvement projects — that clearly fall into the engineering realm.

Most state-approved apprenticeship programs require college level learning of subjects that apply to a specific craft. Academic immersion may not equal an engineering curriculum, but a degree of mental prowess is still required.

I do agree with Mr. Haigh’s assessment about marketplace perceptions and attitudes concerning tradespeople. I’ll be the first in line to admit that the “trades” have a serious image problem — much of it self inflicted. However, marketing must shoulder a portion of the problem. Marketing glorifies engineering, often humorously, with ads depicting tech types adorned with lab coats and clipboards. Maintenance people are often exemplified by a guy walking around with an oilcan and wrench.

Yes, the industry is faced with a dilemma. Industrial maintenance requires higher mental capacity and skill levels than ever. Yet, mentally motivated people shun it like the plague — mostly due to a poor public image. And herein lies much of the skilled trades solution. The perception must change.

If skilled craftspeople are to be counted as a professional entity, they must find middle ground between the factory worker stereotype and the engineering realm. If this implies breaking away from the traditional labor group and joining technical/professional unions or societies that better serve their interests, so be it. This makeover also implies craft certifications, networking, staying abreast of emerging technologies, and additional training and education, especially in computer and communication skills. Craftspeople also must have the opportunity to advance to the higher engineering levels if they possess the education, skill sets, and experience required.

When craftspeople begin to perceive their group as a professional entity, and “walk the talk,” respect and compensation will follow. This approach will encourage others to pursue industrial maintenance careers and perhaps persuade parents to consider these career options when advising their children.

— Robert A. Herklotz, MT for a major automobile manufacturer