Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

I have a friend, Jay Hook, who used to lead the Masco Corp.’s automotive operations. Jay has a master’s degree in engineering, but before he joined the auto industry, he played professional baseball, pitching for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets.

The legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel was with the Mets when Jay was on the team. One day before Jay was to start a game, one of his teammates asked, “Why does a curve ball curve?” To an engineer the explanation is quite simple, and Jay explained, “It is due to the Bernoulli effect, where when you put a spin on the ball, the velocity on opposite sides is different, leading to a pressure differential which, when integrated over the projected area of the ball, creates a force that causes the ball to curve.”

Stengel overheard the discussion. Jay started the game, but struggled to get the other team out and was replaced by a relief pitcher. Back in the clubhouse after the game, Stengel came up to Jay and said, “Too bad you can’t do what you know.”

This issue is with us today in everything we do. Academic knowledge is great but you really have “to do what you know” if you are going to create value.

In Michigan, at a recent summit on jobs organized by the governor, the No. 1 shortage of talent in Michigan was skilled trades and technicians. In second place were engineers with mechanical/electrical abilities. In both categories, workers have to “get their hands dirty,” which doesn’t necessarily mean in a literal sense, but rather, that you really must know how things work and understand the world of manufacturing.

Knowledge is important but is only a start; the application of that knowledge is what creates value. I saw this firsthand growing up in Detroit. I attended public schools and had hands-on courses like metal, machine and wood shop and drafting as well as the traditional academic courses of math, science and English. I went on to earn four degrees from the University of Michigan.

I spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in West Michigan. One thing I learned very early is that farming is a hands-on profession. You haven’t lived until you put a fork into accumulated straw and manure and smell something very special. When something broke on the farm, you didn’t run to the city to buy whatever broke; you fixed it yourself. This was a wonderful experience for me, and it doesn’t mean that everyone should have the opportunity to shovel manure, but it does suggest that getting your hands dirty is not such a bad thing and in fact is a form of application learning.

For some reason, we have moved away from the idea that “getting your hands dirty” is a good thing. Many young people and their parents hope for a job on Wall Street or in some other “clean” profession, when the needs are so great in one of the most important parts of our economy. An auto manufacturer today has an economic multiplier of about 10, i.e. for every job at an auto company, nine other jobs are tied to it through suppliers or spinoff jobs in other businesses. The Wall Street job has a multiplier of about two; our economy would be in tough shape if all we had were Wall Street jobs.

We are seeing some progress, but we have much to do.

One thing everyone should understand is that the idea of a manufacturing facility filled with smoke and noise is very outdated. Manufacturing today is high tech and productive. Unfortunately most don’t have that picture.

At the University of Michigan mechanical engineering department, every student every year gets their hands dirty. It happens in courses where they design, build, test and present and in a number of very popular student projects like the Solar Car, Formula SAE or the Mini-Baja team projects. Of course this is done using the most contemporary and advanced technologies.

One of the most important things we can do is change the image and spell out the amazing opportunities in modern manufacturing in order to attract more young people to an education that will mesh with the explosion of needs for high-tech, but hands-on, jobs.

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Sat, 03/21/2015 - 9:06am
“For some reason, we have moved away from the idea that “getting your hands dirty” is a good thing.” I wonder if Mr. Cole is willing to get his intellectual ‘hands dirty’ by engaging in a conversation or is he simply pontificating and walking away from his readers. If Mr. Cole’s reality of an engineer getting ‘hands dirty’ is in a university lab assembling a solar car, he has lived a sheltered life. He talks about mechanical and electrical engineering, seeming not to know how they are getting their ‘hands dirty’ in Michigan by keeping the power grid working, by keeping the production lines working, by working with technicians to keep Michigan working. He is perpetuating the ‘ivory tower’ image by only mentioning the college setting. If Mr. Cole wants more people engaged in training for the technical jobs, he needs to start looking at middle and high school students and getting them exposed to what they can do. Whether hearing and seeing a welder, a pipe fitter, an electronics technician, physicist, a mathematician, a mechanical or electrical or chemical or packaging or any other engineer talking about their work and seeing their work place or having those kids actually work with their hands it is where the seeds of the future need to be planted. Those students need to see what the 'dirty hands' jobs are like, see what they achieve, see the personal pride, see how those jobs apply science, math, reading and writing apply. Mr. Cole needs to understand that the problem he is concerned with today began over 50 years about in the auto plants, in the classrooms, in the media, with the politicians in Lansing and Washington, and has become part of our culture. If Mr. Cole wants to see his concerns addressed he needs to get his intellectual ‘hands dirty’ and start talking to people who understand the importance and the value of getting your ‘hands dirty.’ I wonder how those with the jobs Mr. Cole is talking about get their 'hands dirty.' I wonder how they got interested in their jobs? I wonder how they have help others get interested in such jobs? If they haven;t recruited people to their type of work, why? Those are the types of question Mr. Cole might ask and have a conversation about.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 6:35am
Duane, if you knew Dr. Cole, you would know that he has spent his whole life doing exactly that which you talk about.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 6:59am
Dr Cole is right. We face a huge problem in our middle and high schools as much of the hands on learning has been eliminated. It's a huge problem for those kids who thrive in that environment.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 8:59am
Rich, I don't doubt what you have said, but all I had is what he wrote or didn't write. Where he seems to focus on late in the process of a student deciding on what they will study, I believe the linking of science and how the student can relate to it needs to start early before they have any inclinging of what they may want to do.
Sat, 03/21/2015 - 1:13pm
I once had a dirty hands job - cleaning sheep manure out of a barn with a pitchfork, once you get used to the smell and the flies everywhere it really wasn't so bad. It is the kind of job everyone should do at least once in their lives.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 8:57am
If we would follow this simple quote we would be a much better world. "If a society does not respect it's plumbers as well as it's philosophers neither it's pipes nor it's theories will ever hold water". Amen R.L.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 10:00am
Our nation, parents, schools, media and politicians still worship at the temple of the bachelor's degree (or Master's degree), even when it so often leads to a mushy. nowhere do nothing degrees producing nowhere do nothing citizens. The idea that only the least able students (this means some other people's kids) should go into trades and techical feilds still is the prevalent midset, until we see this change and be encouraged and celebrated at all ends of the social, intelectual and economic specturms we're still heading towards a nation that can't do anything. (think Rome and its slaves).
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 2:45pm
As always its not just any one thing and so Its not only a matter of educating parents, students and the public at large that manufacturing jobs are no longer "jobs". Its also about giving students at the k-12 level exposure to those jobs at a early age. One of the other statistics unveiled at the Governor's Summit is that 40% of students in CTE (career-technical education) programs are studying business/marketing/sales and/or health care. Those in IT, manufacturing and even STEM based fields is in the single digits. We used to have a much more robust CTE system involving employers, K-12 and technical programs such as those found at community colleges. However, disinvestment over the past two decades in federal and state funding as well as in the loss of internship programs at the business level have also had their impact. At the end of the day, we must remember that it will take a strong collaborative effort by both the public and private sector and reinvestment by state and federal policymakers to create the full talent base we need to ensure our economic security in the years ahead.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 3:31pm
Plato that “A man must practice that thing from early childhood, in play ... ” meaning Every job - programmer, surgeon, electrician, lawyer, millwright, writer etc. - requires one to practice to get their hands dirty. Work is just that a hands-on activity. Sadly we have moved away from hands-on education as it is "easier" to teach facts and theories. Hands-on education requires the leader to be an expert in the activity and not just recitation of facts from a book. I have found most teachers except those in Career Technical Education, are not hands-on experts. You have math teachers who can not load data on an Excel spreadsheet and show a student how to create graphs or design a product in Computer Aided Design software which is math in application. Until we force applied mathematical and science classes beginning in kindergarten, we will have an ever growing talent shortage as Corporate America wants employees at all levels to have skills. the 21st Century should be dubbed the the Century of skills
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 3:52pm
I went to a committee college ,took some basic courses and some specific trade courses too see what I was good at. I was by no means an artist but inheriting my fathers engineering eye and some art skills , Drafting seemed to come easy. BUT, I didn't want to be stuck in a cubicle for 35+ years. My point is that I had to learn some basic skills before I moved on to starting my own Brickscape/landscape business. Then all I did was get my hands dirty for 5 years until selling it for profit! I wish I had these skill in H.S taught to me instead of the few thousand it cost me in College. Never attaining a degree
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 4:27pm
The legislators in Lansing need to listen and pay very close attention to Mr. Cole (likewise those at places like the Mackinac Center) who propose eliminating the 'prevailing wage" requirement for state contracts. Kids thinking about a career do consider their future earnings and how they will be perceived and treated by others. In our never ending "race to the bottom" of the pay scale and disregard for the welfare of workers(slash benefits, eliminate any safety net) why in the world would anyone chose any of these kinds of jobs.
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 9:05pm
chuck, Help me understand why that every time someone wants Lansing to raise the minimum wage those someones never talk about the employees giving a minimum value for that pay. I notice you don't mention any responsibilities for those who are being paid. If there is to be a minimum wage then their should be a minumum work. I would even support a staged minimum wage system so kids can start learning the value of work, where a high school diploma would recieve a higher pay, where the work ethic of showing up on time, showing respect to peers, superviors, and customer, where speaking english, where proper atire and other basic elements are part of the compensation schedule. What is wrong with both employers and employees have responsibilities when they are covered by the minimum wage law?
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sun, 03/22/2015 - 9:41pm
I liked your commentary, when I first read it. But I think you miss on the most basic of these issues. Issue 1: A child's understanding must be consulted. If it is not, he will not be able to use an idea. If a child understands something, he can do it. If an employee understands something, he or she can do it. They can produce something of value. But, if the child does not understand something well enough to demonstrate it, then they, as an employee or business owner, later in life, will not be able to do it. I have found if you ask a child if he understands something, he will almost always say, "Yes!" So, this is not a valid question to ask, because it does not detect if the child understands something well enough to be able to use it. I show the child how to demonstrate a few things, then I ask them to demonstrate how they would use it in life. I they can not, they will not be able to apply it in life. I ask them how to apply it to specific things in life. If they can not, I find out why, get them to understand that, and the rest of the idea. Then I verify they can demonstrate it! Then I verify they can demonstrate it more or less instantly. How is this different than what teachers do every day? They do not have the child actually demonstrate they can apply it to life. They accept something less. They do not have the purpose of "Work". They are not intending that the child understand well enough to create value in the economy. Now, this may sound harsh, so let me explain the difference and the key point that makes all the difference in the world. Issue 2: The child is never asked to demonstrate sufficient understanding to actually apply something in life. A teacher can detect that the child does not understand something she said. But she is not trained to resolve it sufficiently for the child to understand it well enough to be able to apply it in life. She does not know there are no misunderstood concepts (as far as solving this issue is concerned.) Issue 3: Creating Value. You said, 'Academic knowledge is great but you really have “to do what you know” if you are going to create value.' I think this is very true, if... you are going to create value. But I don't think Education has this as a value, they do not have this in mind when they teach, and the student does not have this in mind when they study. Teachers do not have this mind in mind when they teach students how to learn on their own. I call this value "Work." The student must have a purpose for what he is studying. He must connect what he is studying to what he will be doing. “Too bad you can’t do what you know.” So this is how one does this; train the student to have a purpose for what he is studying, to connect what he is doing to what he will be doing. Have him demonstrate what he knows, then he will be able to do it. And one more thing.... Issue 4: The only reason a student becomes unable to learn is when he goes past a word he does not understand. So, just to give this its proper importance, let's review..."the ONLY reason a student becomes unable to learn..." If a student can not read a sentence smoothly and find the word he did not understand. Then you get him to define it, and then read it smoothly and easily. The same thing with anything the student can not do, that he has been trained to do. Like doing a demo of something. If he can not demo it, then he does not understand it well enough to apply it in life. You know the reason he does not understand it well enough and you can find a specific thing. So you find the word he missed, and then you see to it that he can do that demo. This consults his understanding. He now understands and can do it. You can have the tools to do this. Each teacher can have the tools to do this. Each employer can have the tools to do this. Your Commentary is very important...but not if we do not fix this mismatch between Education and the Economy. Leon
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:37pm
'...skilled trades and technicians...' I can't get over how there's so little (like NO) discussion about the trade guilds / unions in Germany & Europe. I know we have nothing to learn from other countries since we're #1 in everything, but... Businesses want the public to educate, train their workers all the while paying less and less in taxes (and lowering wages and benefits at the same time). When does it end? Where does it end? Phil - how about stepping up to the plate on this one and being honest and evidence based?
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 8:21pm
Rick March 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm Rick, you said; "Businesses want the public to educate..." I think you may have a misunderstanding on this issue. I understand businesses spend about the same amount internally to educate their employees as the public spends to educate students. I'm guessing public Education is about $1 trillion per year. And my estimate for the amount business spends is an additional $1 trillion. I understand business's main complaint is employees do not arrive willing to or able to learn the new skills and knowledge that is unique to their business. I'm talking about their willingness to that point. What I typically saw as an employee's first manager was an attitude like this. "What do you want me to do?" Their expectation is that they already "know everything" and "know everything better" than the manager they will be working for or the senior technical people they will be working with. So we have this instant problem. How do I tell him what I want him to if he knows all about it? After about 30 new employees giving me this strange attitude, I worked out a solution. I give them the easiest task available in the company and I just turn them loose on it. I just watch and listen and pay attention to what they are doing. They struggle mightily. They in fact do not know how to do things. After four or five hours on this small task they come back to me in frustration. "Is this what I want?" I told them what I wanted before, but they could not receive it. At that point they can. They can listen and they know they have to learn. They know they can not do it. So I handle this barrier the very first day. On the second day, they have new attitude. They willing to open their eyes and ears and learn. Some owners and managers say it takes them up to five years to bring a graduate, a new-hire up to speed in business. This is lost work where the employer is actually spending money to train this employee enough to bring them up to speed. Often when an employee has gone through this process and now knows how to do something industry they find a job at another company for a much higher rate. One company locally has an ad for the same position every year and a half or so. It takes them about that long to train this guy up till he feels productive then he leaves because he knows he is worth more than that. He leaves. You also said, "When does it end? Where does it end?" I recently read an article on Am-Trac. They have been losing money every year since 1971 and have been getting bailed out every year since then by the government. They sell a hamburger for $9. They say it "costs" them 16$. They make no effort at cost reduction, because they really don't have to. They just have friends in government that pay them anyways. Now I think this is what goes on with Eduction, with the schools. They do not have to be effective, they don't have to follow the same rules as businesses that earn their way. A child does not pass. They get paid anyway. This issue is called "social promotion." I say, "Let's put a clause in the teacher's contract like most any professional in the state of Michigan (like myself) that contracts with the state of Michigan. It might read like this, "I have the knowledge and skills to teach each child in my class to the grade level requirements required by the state Constitution. If I do not do this with any student, I will pay a tutor to bring them up to grade level before the beginning of the next year." That would solve many problems. Instead the teacher's insist on arguments that support "social promotion." Social Promotion is a failure. Teachers fail when they use it. One answer to your question of When does it End? It ends when a teacher agrees, has the integrity to sign a contract as I have outlined. Now, I am jaundiced at this point. I do not believe teachers actually have the knowledge and skills to accept this condition like other professionals. They would rather fight for any lower standard. Now Principals could accept a similar statement in their contracts. It would end right there. School Board member could accept a statement in their commitment to students. Students could have an effective course on how to learn things and they could accept an agreement to accept responsibility as a professional for what they are doing. It could end right there. But my guess is the fight will start from here. I will be told in a thousand different ways "Why it can not be done!" And as I handle each one, the teller will create a new reason it can not be done. You will see this attitude. I like your comment. - Leon