Uptime: I Want America Back!

Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor
Remember when we, our businesses, our industries, our government and our educational institutions focused on the fundamentals—the basics? Things seem to be different today.

These days, the very foundation of what made America strong has been eroded to the point that we often feel like hapless victims of self-serving decision-making and lack of informed leadership. Although we should hold bragging rights as the most productive, reliable plants and facilities in the world, in reality, our capital-intensive businesses and industries are at more risk today than ever before. What a discouraging state of affairs given all the reliability-enhancing tools and methodologies that have blossomed in the past 20 years.

Maintenance methods and process reliability have improved significantly with the advent of state-of-the-art diagnostic technologies. For example, ultrasonics let us detect problems that we normally cannot spot with our senses, including leaking valves, loose and arcing electrical components and high-frequency warnings in hard to access places. Vibration analysis technology lets us peer into machinery components to detect the earliest signs of deteriorating bearings, looseness and out-of-balance conditions that we could not detect otherwise. Oil analysis, among other things, helps us understand the amount of wear on specific components inside gearboxes and hydraulic systems. Infrared thermography provides insight into temperature differentials that can cause mechanical and electrical equipment failures. The list of these types of invaluable maintenance tools goes on and on.

0807_uptime1Where’s the gap?
What good is all our superior technology if a mechanic does not know how to properly inspect, remove, replace, repair, adjust or calibrate a problem component? What good is this technology if a technician does not know the inner workings of the machines and components he/she is analyzing in order to pinpoint problems and their root causes?

A workforce clearly can be trained on the reliability tools that are available to them—and how to interpret the reports these tools generate. But, without the F-U-N-D-A-M-E-N-T-A-L-S, the basics of good maintenance methods AND equipment-specific skills and knowledge, such a workforce becomes little more than an army of parts changers that can only hope whatever problems erupt will eventually be corrected.

Back to the basics
We have addressed the deterioration of our education and training systems in prior columns. Now, let’s explore this issue from a different perspective.

How did we learn to work on things when we were growing up? The answer will differ depending on our respective ages. For example, many of those who now are retiring from the workplace—in the 60- to 70-year-old age range— would say they learned to make, build and fix things from Dad, Grandpa, Mom, Uncles, Aunts, etc. They also would mention skills learned in school, shop class, projects and hobbies. This group grew up in the WWII era through the 1950s, when high school graduation became an important goal in America.

The number of high school graduates more than doubled between 1950 and 1975. With the “Baby Boom” generation came increased enthusiasm for education: a high school diploma was a must, and a college degree was viewed as THE ticket to success.

Back then there were three basic choices in school: college prep, general education or vocational education. Parents, teachers and counselors placed a high priority on “career” preparation versus “gainful employment” immediately after graduating. Yes, there still were those who finished high school and went to work in factories and mills with little or no advanced education. These individuals did fairly well—as long as the jobs remained stable. All of this has changed, however.

What’s different?
Three big factors are having a significant effect on established businesses in America today: Retiring or aging “Baby Boomers,” a society that values a college education at the expense of “career preparation” in a balanced social-economic system and disconnected decision-making by politicians (our “representatives”) and corporate leaders. Just look at what’s happening.

The high school dropout rate has soared to 30%. Yet, while these dropouts and a large number of public school students are denied meaningful and appropriate educational preparation, our public school systems are continuing to strongly promote the importance of “college education” for all.

0807_uptime2School teachers of today can’t easily deviate from standardized curriculums in their classes. Federal and state governments base their financial support of schools on student test scores as a determination of the effectiveness of teachers and schools.

The much-heralded No Child Left Behind initiative emphasizes test scores and college preparatory studies. But, if a parent doesn’t reinforce study habits, homework or meaningful class projects, or if teachers aren’t allowed to give homework, or if extra-curricular activities take time away from “education,” what do test scores really show? They truly say “Johnny has not learned…” Consequently, the bureaucrats and politicians seem to believe that “the schools are not doing their job and teachers aren’t teaching!” Pressure is then put on schools and teachers rather than on the real roots of the problem—on parents, societal pressures and the students themselves. As a result, the very system that was intended to advance good education is actually leaving many children behind—behind in careers and behind in life.

As educators we used to be able to recommend that some students were suited for “higher education” and college degree studies and others were better suited for “career preparation” and vocational- technical studies. In many states today, that approach is against policy or even illegal. Students can no longer be “tracked” into one educational path or another. So, what happens to the “noncollege- bound” students? They struggle! What are their options? Do they even know what their options are?

Take the following example of educational dysfunction. Recently, a vocational high school serving an entire county school system in Michigan cut back on some of its traditional vocational programs (welding, auto mechanics) because of teacher shortages, fewer interested students and administrative decisions. One of these administrative decisions was based on the notion that the “automotive industry in Michigan is downsizing so we’ll need fewer mechanics.” Wait a minute!

Will people in Michigan be driving fewer cars and trucks? Will the need for automobile maintenance and repair decline because Michigan is making fewer vehicles? NO! But, that is the type of thought process that disconnects public education from the actual needs of society.

Big corporations also make changes that affect how things get done without considering or getting the buy-in from the people closest to what is being changed. Corporate decision-makers need to realize that the very wealth they hope to create is generated on the plant floors and not in the board rooms. Executives who think and plan in a vacuum often fail to develop the types of comprehensive strategies that allow them to obtain the results they desire. A strategy that does not engage the people closest to wealth-generating mechanisms and fails to gain their understanding and buy-in can be a prescription for disaster.

Many of our country’s decisions (i.e., laws and regulations) are made for political gain, often based on speculation rather than on comprehensive fact-based prescriptions for our Nation’s interest. Preparation for a “college education” is not the only answer for American competitiveness. Measuring a student’s progress through testing is not solely a function of teaching and curriculum effectiveness. Parent and family values play a key role too. That’s a fundamental part of the learning process.

What do we want?
You better believe it. I want America back! We need to take our country back from the disconnected decision-makers, policy-makers and self-serving politicians who are not looking out for our future life style and our national competitiveness.

I want school teachers, counselors and administrators to listen and respond to the needs of the communities they serve, not the politicians holding the purse strings. I want fair and balanced “career education” provided to school students beginning in the sixth grade. I want parents to realize that their future lifestyles, healthcare and social security, among other things, depend on the abilities of their children as meaningful and productive members of our society.

I want Johnny and Sally to learn that a vocational program can lead to secure and rewarding careers and that a one- or two-year post secondary vocational-technical is “college” too. I want employers to spend time with their local schools and boards of education to let them know what is required to be employed in their businesses. I want companies to offer field trips and tours of their workplaces not only to students but also to teachers, counselors and administrators.

I want America to continue to be the most productive nation in the world with a life style that commands respect. But, of course, that’s just me. That’s what I want.

What do YOU want and what are you willing to do about it?