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This artists rendering provided by NASA shows the Mars Rover, Curiosity. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity will attempt a landing on Mars the night of Aug. 5, 2012.

, Associated Press

Mars, machines and the Minnesota connection

  • Article by: STACY BECKER
  • August 14, 2012 - 10:27 AM

Mars may be 35 million miles from Earth, but we Minnesotans have a close connection. Parts of the Mars rover, which is sending back all those wonderful pictures, were built right here. At a local machine shop.

It took Andrew Tool and Machining in Plymouth about 18 months to design the processes and manufacture the parts, in an all-out brain-teaser. The shop had to allow for how various metals and designs would perform in zero gravity, at extreme temperatures, and at manufacturing precision of 50 one-millionths of an inch. (A human hair is about 4 one-thousandths of an inch.)

And Andrew, like the many other machine shops in Minnesota, cannot find enough machinists to fill its jobs.

What's going on? Recently there has been a lot of attention paid to the so-called "skills gap." Some reject this idea, countering that it's nothing but a political ploy to suit business. As part of its higher-education reform project, the Citizens League, with which I'm working, was interested in finding out more about this supposed skills gap. We decided to learn more about one corner of this issue -- so I visited a number of machine shops.

I had never before set foot in a machine shop, nor any other manufacturing facility. So let me tell you first how dumbstruck I was, say, on the day I stared at an odd-shaped metal object that fit in the palm of my hand. The center was gouged out, and holes run through it every which way. What was it? A part for a "bionic" leg for returning war veterans who have lost a limb. The holes allow for wiring activated by brain signals, and for gears that allow the leg's mechanical foot to move nearly as smoothly as a flesh-and-blood foot. It, too, is made at Andrew.

There are machine shops sprinkled throughout Minnesota. Most are small and locally owned. But whether you're in Chanhassen or St. Cloud or Alexandria, you notice the same thing when you walk through them. They are clean and well-lit and at a comfortable temperature. They can be noisy, but generally are not. From time to time, workers will be huddled together on a problem, but mostly they work at individual stations, in self-directed and independent work.

Their work is like a 3-D chess game. They must visualize a three-dimensional part from a blueprint and think several steps ahead in order to figure out how to make the part using computerized machining equipment that costs upwards of $350,000.

When you look at parts they are making, you know you are seeing the future. Parts for the telecommunications industry are so small that you feel clumsy trying to pick them up. For agricultural equipment, parts can be so large that a forklift is needed to move them. There are parts for aerospace, medical devices, the military, computing, automobiles and agriculture. The parts feed our entire economy.

So why aren't there enough job candidates? There are a couple of theories. One is that there really isn't a "skills gap" but a "wage gap" -- employers aren't paying enough. That doesn't make much sense, for two reasons.

First, to believe this you'd have to reject the free-market structure that the American economy is built on. Second, machinists make good wages.

The most recent job vacancy survey from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development lists the following hourly median wages: lawyers and judges, $30.77; engineers, $28.8; machinists, $25. Machinists with no experience (or even training) could expect to make $25,000 to $35,000 per year, plus benefits, including health insurance. Expert machinists can earn more than $80,000 a year.

Another theory is that employers are unwilling to train and want to foist that cost off on the public sector. Do we say that about training lawyers? Doctors? A typical path to becoming a machinist is a two-year degree program at a technical college. But interestingly, many manufacturers complain that the skills students are leaving with aren't up to speed with modern-day manufacturing.

Therefore, manufacturers hire in any number of ways. In some cases, where the work is more routine, employers will hire off the street and provide all training. In cases like Andrew's, only experienced machinists are hired.

In either case, employers look for people who display the right interest, aptitude and willingness to learn, because the bulk of the work is learned on the job. Given the speed with which the industry and the products it manufactures change, it is impossible not to continually learn on the job. As one employer said, "The day you think you know it all is the day you should retire."

The more likely theory is that high school students are steered into college and away from the trades; they have no idea that jobs like machining exist. We have archaic notions of manufacturing as dehumanizing mindless work conducted in dark, smelly, noisy, dirty places. We think careers will be short-lived because manufacturing is on its way out. But that, too, is suspect, because much of the manufacturing that remains is skilled work that can't be outsourced to low-skill countries.

Not everyone can be a machinist (nor a dancer, nor a writer, nor an astrophysicist). What's sad is that most high school students are never even given the chance to find out what a machinist is. So maybe it's not a "skills gap" but an "interest gap."

Why should we care? Because students with a passion and aptitude for such work are being steered away. Because research shows that technical training can motivate kids to stay in school and finish their high school diplomas. Because jobs are going unfilled. And because a great deal of innovation comes out of manufacturing, and so it becomes a growth engine for local economies.

As one young machinist said, "I hated high school. I was a fish out of water. But then I was introduced to a machine shop through a local foundation." Today he is part of the team that helps figure out how to create parts for artificial limbs. Who knows what he'll be making tomorrow?

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Stacy Becker, of St. Paul, is a public-policy consultant.

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