There lies a hidden problem in the United States that remains unknown to the majority of the population. This problem affects our classrooms, our economy, our workforce, our infrastructure, and many other areas. To machinists, it’s apparent—a lack of skilled workers in the mechanical field. For decades, the US has seen a lack of pursuance and interest in the mechanical field, which leaves many machinist companies without skilled workers. This lack of skilled workers leads to a decrease in production and an overall reduction in innovation…
But like most problems, this issue didn’t happen overnight.
For insight into why the mechanical industry is losing interest and traction, Leading Edge Industrial explores our history.
We see the earliest forms of mechanical pursuits start with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. The US began to spread transportation routes all over the country with railroads and steamships, which facilitated an easy transfer of resources. With an abundance of natural resources, a large labor force, and an eagerness to scale and produce, the mechanical field was well underway.
The mechanical field continued to grow until it exploded with the roaring 20s. The roaring 20s was a growth of innovation, production, and ingenuity. World War I boosted the US economy by allowing new countries to purchase products from the US. The United States also began to mass produce vehicles, radios, and other household appliances, which were quickly purchased by consumers. Though the economy crashed in the early 30s, it quickly rebounded with World War II, when a desperate need for war equipment and other tools called US manufacturing to action.
When World War II ended in 1945, the United States launched into a new period of affluence—fit with sprawling suburbs, larger households, and a hunger for material goods. The mechanical field soared as requests for newer, better, and more luxurious products were demanded.
The Cold War
Though the mechanical industry was thriving, one of the earliest blows to the industry came in the form of the Cold War. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew, the fear of an atomic war loomed over the country. In order to combat the fear and urgency felt, the government placed a new emphasis on education. Young students were encouraged to pursue mathematics, science, computer science, and foreign language. With grants from institutions like the Higher Education Act in 1965 and the National Science Foundation, students were pushed to take research-based, technical classes—turning an eye away from mechanical pursuits.
This trend of placing a higher value on education continued into the 60s and 70s, with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson spending mass amounts of money on educational reform. This time period also witnessed a turn away from mass consumption as many youths denounced excess luxury—the same luxury which spurred many mechanical pursuits.
As the 70s faded into the background, the 80s saw a grand increase in the number of academic courses needed to graduate. Classes like English, social science, and math were given a new importance. As students added these new requirements to their agendas, they had less time to enroll in courses like woodshop and physical fitness classes.
Hardships of the Early 2000s
The decreased enrollment of students in woodshop courses continued into the 90s and 2000s. Many school districts faced sharp budget cuts due to untimely recessions in the early 90s and mid 2000s. As school districts were faced with tough spending choices, many opted to cancel offered electives—thus, woodshop and industrial design were among the first classes to be cut.
In addition to spending cuts, schools that do sponsor industrial and mechanical classes have been experiencing difficulties with finding qualified teachers. According to the Los Angeles Times, the average age of the US woodshop teacher is 55, meaning that these teachers are close to the retirement age. Though it wouldn’t be hard to find qualified teachers to instruct courses like math or science, a lack of interest and study in the mechanical field has produced a serious lack of skilled teachers—forcing many schools to cancel their industrial classes altogether.
Will We Continue to Lose Mechanical Classes?
As our nation steers away from placing importance on manufacturing, will future students still be given an opportunity to experience the possibilities that a mechanical education can bring?
Tune in next week as Leading Edge Industrial explores the current situation of mechanical education and read our thoughts on how schools and the industry can help remedy the troubling skill gap found in the United States.