Engineering with your hands: Is shop class back?
Mark Atwater posted on April 27, 2014 |
Vocational programs are seeing a renaissance

Shop class. Those words bring up different thoughts for different people. Maybe you think of it as a novelty for hobbyists. Maybe you think of it as a dumping ground for “bad” kids. Maybe you think it is not a place for engineers. Maybe you should think again.

Vocational classes have been dwindling from the modern high school curriculum. Machine shops, welding booths and woodworking cost money. The equipment, at least somewhat modern equipment, is relatively costly to acquire and maintain, not to mention the consumables involved.

It is no wonder these elective programs are under fire in cash-strapped schools which have test scores to make and no direct link to assess these job-based training efforts. There is a sort of groundswell brewing, however, and there is good reason to believe skilled trades education is worth the cost.

A recent Wall Street Journal article emphasizes a couple of good points about the topic. First, many college graduates are working at jobs that don’t require a college education. One of the top reasons to attend 4 years (or more) of college is to get a good job. That brings us to the next point, there are jobs in skilled trades, and they are good jobs.

The need for skilled workers in trades such as fabrication and manufacturing has led to six-figure salaries in high-demand areas such as pipeline welding, but companies are backing this up with more than just job offers. In Seattle, a mothballed machine shop is being reopened and refurbished with financial and curricular backing by Boeing to teach students the skills employers want.

The resurgence in hands-on, technical education has to be done right. The purpose of vocational education shouldn’t be solely the teaching of a single skill set to a single student disposition. The shop class should also include those who plan to go through 4 years of college. It is an opportunity to give perspective to “college-bound” students while serving to prepare those who will seek a job right out of high school.

The work of engineers ends up being brought to market by skilled tradesmen. The incorporation of manufacturing, assembling or other processing perspectives, can help engineers make better design decisions upstream. This well-rounded perspective may help address a skills gap in engineering.

As someone who chose vocational education in high school and then engineering in college, I understand that the two have different goals which are not always well-aligned. But I also understand that the “shop class” experience can be a valuable piece in understanding how the world works and how to make it work better. If more engineers got to build what they designed, they might design differently.


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