By Alan S. Brown
America has always been a nation of hands-on tinkerers, but many American teenagers and adults are turned off by working with their hands, according to a pair of surveys conducted by Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), a Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International.
A survey found that 52 percent of teenagers 13 to 17 years old had little or no interest in a manufacturing career and another 21 percent were ambivalent. The second survey found that many American adults no longer work with their hands, either for pleasure in their hobbies or to make repairs around the home.
"This means young people essentially have no role models when it comes to fixing things themselves or taking pride in building something useful," said Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs president Gerald Shankel. "It's no wonder why so many teens today dismiss the idea of considering a career in manufacturing or one of the manual arts such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry or welding."
Shankel and Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs founder, actor and producer John Ratzenberger, note that several surveys predict that U.S. manufacturers will suffer a labor shortage if they cannot more people to the field.
Ratzenberger, who comes from a blue collar family, is best known for playing Cliff Clavin on the sitcom Cheers. Afterwards, as host of Travel Channel's Made in America, he visited hundreds of manufacturing facilities around the country. Ratzenberger founded Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs to encourage young people to enter blue collar professions.
The survey of teenagers was not a true scientific study, since marketing organizations are not able to call and question teenagers. Instead, the researchers polled a representative volunteer panel of 278 males and 222 females over the Web.
The manual arts have historically been the province of boys and men, who traditionally held manufacturing jobs. Men hold roughly 70 percent of all U.S. manufacturing jobs, compared to 30 percent for women. Since the respondents were 44 percent women, the survey may understate the level of mechanical arts in people most likely to go into manufacturing.
Still, this survey suggests getting young people interested in manufacturing could be an uphill battle. It found 61 percent of teens were not interested in manufacturing because they wanted a professional career. Other reasons included pay (17 percent), career growth (15 percent), and physical work (14 percent).
The survey of 500 teens found limited exposure to what often are called the "manual arts." It found that 61 percent had never have visited or toured a manufacturing facility. Only 28 percent had taken an industrial arts or shop class (less than half the number who completed a home economics course).
Even those who worked with their hands spent limited time on such pursuits as woodworking or models. According to the survey, 26 percent spent one to two hours per week and 30 percent less than one hour per week. Another 27 percent spent no time working with their hands.
The second poll was based on a telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. adults. It found that 27 percent had never made or built even one item from a list of eight common projects ranging from a dollhouse or piece of furniture to a fence or flower box. For example, 58 percent had never built a toy.
In addition, 60 percent avoided handling major household repairs and 57 percent stated that they had average or below average skills at fixing things around the house.
"Numerous surveys conducted by organizations in manufacturing predict a labor shortage if we don't inform the nation's youth about the available opportunities and enlist them to fill the sophisticated, high-tech jobs in areas such as robotics and lasers," Ratzenberger said.
His organization helps to build interest by funding manufacturing summer camps for youth and providing scholarships to students who study at manufacturing at colleges and trade schools.