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Re: Sign-o-the-times

Subject: Re: Sign-o-the-times
From: "Michael D. Porter" <>
Date: Sat, 11 Mar 2000 04:46:08 -0700 wrote:
> Fellow Metal Freaks-
> In this disposable world it is becoming more difficult to find any real
> artisans any more.

That's a good word for them, Nick. A damned good word.

> For that matter, it's becoming difficult to find
> competency any more. The latest lament is over a heat treating shop about 150
> miles from my house. The two guys who ran the shop actually knew what they
> were doing and would not only take the time to ascertain my needs and how to
> fulfill them, but took the time to show me any and all aspects of their job.
> (Only time I have ever seen, let alone used a Comparator.)

Hmm, want a comparator? Think our inspection department has one they
never use.... (!) Only about seven tall and 1000 pounds. <g>

> So I loaded up my newly bent sway bars and tooled down to San Francisco only
> to find a sign on the shop that said "Retired...out of business." I know I
> could have called first, but it never dawned on me that they would be gone. I
> knew that they were both in their 60's and they had noted that they could not
> get anyone interested in working with them so that the shop could continue,
> but this is a harsh reality.

It is, frankly, a shame that such happens. But, the long explanation has
to do with the educational system in this country today. Having been
community-college level instructor twenty years ago, I've thought long
and hard about which you allude here. Forty years ago, there were two
main tracks in high school -- college prep, or the trades. Over time,
with the changes in educational philosophy in this country, eventually,
the goal was to put everyone in college. Admirable, but not entirely
practical. The reasons for this, I think, were  sociological,
philosophical and a matter of economics. 

High schools were under attack everywhere, struggling to get millages to
keep the schools going, and the first cuts came in the trade school side
of public education. Trade departments required a relatively large
physical plant and expensive equipment.

Combined with that was the educational philosophy emerging in the `70s
that there were no bad students, only bad teachers, and that everyone
could go to college. That created a situation where the trade school
functions were gradually shifted to the community college level.
Community colleges discovered, in the `80s, that they had trouble
placing people in the hard trades, and it was much easier to begin
programs with more class, more visibility, and more likelihood of
placing graduates in jobs--computers, nursing, A&P licensed aircraft
mechanics. The old trades gradually withered, and high school graduates
who didn't go to college were solely dependent upon the apprenticeship
programs of local unions, for electricians, plumbers and pipefitters.

That broad range of skills, including, as you mention above,
heat-treating, and precision welding, precision machining, were rapidly
being taken over by automated equipment. New skills were required for
such jobs (computer proficiency for one), and the old, hard hand skills
weren't being developed in the trade schools, or the colleges and for
that reason, there's a generation of people now leaving their small
technically-based businesses to languish, in part because their
businesses required re-investment in new equipment which the younger
generation could run and understand, but for which the owners and
operators had little need for the kind of business they ran.  

> The machinists that I use (2 brothers) actually run a "machine" shop, not
> some local automotive shop with a press in the back room, and they too have
> said the same thing. When they retire the shop will close!

Same thing applies here--they could probably find someone to run their
business if it were solely equipped with the latest CNC machinery. But,
if it requires hand operation, there might be a struggle. However,
machine skills are still being taught in some colleges, and it might be
worth their time to inquire of area colleges to see if there are people
interested in assuming their business.

> It is a sad commentary that this great pool of talent and experience is
> disappearing from the land. I can only guess that this is occurring on a
> Nationwide, if not Worldwide, basis and is a sad commentary on our society.

In some ways, I agree wholeheartedly. While I understand the reasons, I
lament the loss of that talent. For those of us with special needs for
such talent, the loss is noticeable. We can't call up one of GM's
suppliers and say, "I'd like this one item heat-treated," or, "I need
this bracket fabricated, and it has to be like such and such." Someone
on the other end of the line is going to tell you the minimum quantity
is 10,000....

The guy who painted my TR4 in 1974 was that sort of guy--alcoholic, but
extremely talented. Had a 1936 Pontiac he'd owned since it was two years
old. Perfectly kept, paint and bodywork superb. When a little condensed
moisture had cracked the fuel gauge housing while the car sat through
the winter, and he couldn't find a replacement, he cast his own and
machined it to fit.

Another guy I knew in Michigan was in the business of supplying armor
for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism... I met him because
he had a big Healey that needed work, and while fixing his problem, he
said that he might be making a stainless steel body for the car, since
it was showing lots of rust. I thought that a bit incredible, until he
showed me some of his hand-forming, and explained that he learned his
trade from a German who escaped the Nazis in 1938, and who had spent two
years as an apprentice metalworker. The old German's final exam was a
stove-in Messerschmidt saloon car, which had been badly hit in the left
b-post between the suicide doors. He had two weeks to shrink and pull
and planish and tweak it, entirely by hand, and make it right, without
power tools, without cutting and welding, without lead. I doubt that
we'll see many people in the future with those skills. 


Michael D. Porter
Roswell, NM

`70 GT6+ (being refurbished, slowly)
`71 GT6 Mk. III (organ donor)
`72 GT6 Mk. III (daily driver)
`64 TR4 (awaiting intensive care)

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