Manufacturing is coming back in the U.S., after a precipitous decline, writes Adam Davidson in Making It in America in the new Atlantic. However, manufacturing workers are divided between the highly skilled, who are in demand, and the quickly trained, who must work cheaply or be replaced by machines or Chinese labor.
Luke Hutchins, a machinist at Standard Motor Products’ plant in Greenville, South Carolina, left a four-year college to go to Spartanburg Community College. He wanted to study radiography, but the class was full. Told he could make more than $30 an hour running factory machines, he enrolled in Machine Tool Technology.
Unlike many community college students, Hutchins finds math easy. He studied algebra, trigonometry and calculus at Spartanburg.
“If you know calculus, you definitely can be a machine operator or programmer.” He was quite good at the programming language commonly used in manufacturing machines all over the country, and had a facility for three-dimensional visualization—seeing, in your mind, what’s happening inside the machine—a skill, probably innate, that is required for any great operator. It was a two-year program, but Luke was the only student with no factory experience or vocational school, so he spent two summers taking extra classes to catch up.
After six semesters studying machine tooling, including endless hours cutting metal in the school workshop, Luke, like almost everyone who graduates, got a job at a nearby factory, where he ran machines similar to the Gildemeisters. When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters. All of which is to say that running an advanced, computer-controlled machine is extremely hard.
Luke checks every five minutes or so to make sure the machine is running “on spec.” On a typical shift, he calibrates the machine 20 times.
The most common issue is that the cutting tool gradually wears down. As a result, Luke needs to tell the computer to move the tool a few microns closer, or make some other adjustment. If the operator programs the wrong number, the tool can cut right into the machine itself and destroy equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Luke wants to better understand the properties of cutting tools, he told me, so he can be even more effective. “I’m not one of the geniuses on that. I know a little bit. A lot of people go to school just to learn the properties of tooling.” He also wants to learn more about metallurgy, and he’s especially eager to study industrial electronics. He says he will keep learning for his entire career.
Before the rise of computer-run machines, one person ran a machine that performed one function. An untrained worker could start on the simplest machine and work his way up. “Few people went to school to learn how to work in a factory,” writes Davidson.
Maddie Parlier, a high school graduate, earns $13 an hour at a job that can be learned in a day. She doesn’t know trigonometry, calculus, metallurgy or the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates. Standard doesn’t train workers like Maddie to become machinists like Luke. It takes too long, costs too much and might not work.
A robotic arm could do her job, but it would cost $100,000 and Standard invests only in machinery that will earn back its cost within two years. Maddie is cheaper than the machine — for now.