*Manufacturers struggle to preserve 'shop math' skills*

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Forum topic by Dan'um Style posted 04-08-2012 11:26 PM 2017 views 0 times favorited 23 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Dan'um Style

14168 posts in 3560 days

04-08-2012 11:26 PM

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Manufacturers struggle to preserve ‘shop math’ skills

By JANE M. VON BERGEN — The Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted: 4:00am on Mar 27, 2012; Modified: 8:08am on Mar 27, 2012

Harold’s fork truck is rated for 4,000 pounds. He has to move and stack 10 skids (pallets) of paper, each weighing 1,500 pounds. What is the maximum number of skids he can lift at one time?

If someone wants a job at Case Paper Co., that person had better know how to calculate the answer. Even more basic: Can the person use a tape measure?

“You’d be amazed at how many people can’t read a ruler to one-sixteenth of an inch,” said Lee Cohn of Case Paper. Case converts huge paper rolls into cardboard boxes, pharmaceutical packaging, even lottery tickets.

Gather a bunch of manufacturers like Cohn in a room, and it won’t take them long to start complaining about their inability to find workers adequately skilled in “shop math,” which can include trigonometry and calculus among other types of mathematics.

For years, shop-math skills weren’t really an issue because manufacturing, as a sector of the economy, was a perennial job-shedder. But since early 2010, manufacturers have been hiring – not enough to replace the nearly eight million jobs lost since the late 1970s, but enough to get policymakers worried about workforce capability.

“We want to get people back to work, and there’s a supply of bodies,” said Anthony Girifalco, a vice president of Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a quasi-public group that assists manufacturers. “There’s demand in the manufacturing sector. But how do you close the skills gap?”

Decades of job loss mean that the surviving workers, who are also the most skilled, are nearing retirement age. The pipeline to replace those workers – machinists, tool makers, and others – is woefully inadequate, especially when finding novice workers capable of the simplest calculations is a problem.

Experts in manufacturing and workforce development say that it’s easy to blame schools, but that they’re only part of the problem. The nature of the work itself has changed.

These days, manufacturing is complex – and so is the mathematics involved.

At K’nex Industries Inc., for example -the Hatfield, Pa., manufacturer of the popular construction toy – robotics is increasingly being used on the factory floor, Chief Financial Officer Robert Haines said. That means there are fewer lower-level jobs, but there is a demand for highly skilled workers who can program and repair the robots.

“It used to be if you worked fine with your hands, you could make it. You could have a job,” said Michael A. Lucas, director of the North Montco Technical Career Center, a vocational high school not far from the K’nex plant. “Now, if you cannot do a B average in math, you cannot even obtain that job, because the academic and technical skills must go hand-in-hand.”

Meanwhile, he said, the students most able to handle higher technical demands are choosing college over technical training for manufacturing.

Glenn Artman, a professor of science, engineering and technology at Delaware County Community College near Philadelphia, has spent the past 28 years teaching shop math, computer-aided drawing, blueprint reading, and other manufacturing skills.

To him, “shop math” is a misnomer. It’s simply the applied mathematics needed on a job, whatever the job is: A cook needs ratios to convert a recipe that feeds four to one that feeds 40. An auto mechanic needs to calculate cubic-inch displacement to check engine performance. A building-trades worker hanging drywall needs to be able to measure the distance between studs.

Old-timers on the job take their math skills for granted. “It’s so mundane to the people that do it every day,” Artman said. But it’s easy to get rusty, he added: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Relevance is an issue, he said. With the speed of technological change, even instructors with industrial backgrounds have to struggle to stay current.

At the North Montco Technical Career Center, curriculum developer Bob Lacivita has created guides that translate regular high-school mathematics concepts to “shop math.” There are different guides for auto mechanics, cooks and welders.

“The technical program serves as the catalyst for kids to understand math. It’s the motivator,” Lucas said. “We’ve had kids who have had difficult times with algebra and math in the high school setting, but as soon as they make the connection here, they start to do the mathematics, because it is relevant.”

Then, he said, the problem becomes that these students aren’t able to apply what they’ve learned on a practical basis to what they need to score well on the more theoretical mathematics in standardized tests.

“Yet we are being forced to be accountable to those scores and benchmarks,” Hughes said. So the school also translates shop math to regular math for test prep.

Charles Marcantonio, director of employment and training for the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, said the quasi-governmental organization has developed a basic manufacturing course that includes math instruction.

At Weber Display & Packaging Inc., process manager Chris O’Hearn tells applicants that he’ll teach them how to operate machines that fold, score, and label the boxes his Philadelphia company processes. But they have to be able to pass – using pencil and paper – a 26-question math and reading quiz, with questions like this one: “Multiply 3.6 times 9.6.”

O’Hearn estimated that 10 percent don’t even try. An additional 30 percent can’t pass the quiz, even with unlimited time. “I don’t think there’s anything difficult about it,” he said. “But if they can’t do this, we know they won’t be successful on the job.”

-- keeping myself entertained ... Humor and fun lubricate the brain

23 replies so far

View lew's profile


11502 posts in 3332 days

#1 posted 04-09-2012 12:01 AM

Great post, Dan!

At the Vocational School where I worked, we always stressed the importance of academic skills. It was part of every lesson I taught. Further, I constantly bombarded the kids with the need to get more education after high school. Not every kid can handle college but all kids can get more education to enhance their job skills.
Too often, vocational education is considered, by academic councilors, to be a dead end for higher learning. Not so! I can give a VERY long list of my former students holding college degrees- including PHDs and and even longer list of successful business leaders.

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View TomFran's profile


2954 posts in 3571 days

#2 posted 04-09-2012 12:05 AM

Yes, math is a good thing to know when it comes to practical skills. People who have good math skills are better woodworkers too.

-- Tom, Surfside Beach, SC - Romans 8:28

View Karson's profile


35047 posts in 3977 days

#3 posted 04-09-2012 12:07 AM

This is pretty bad. But I know from my own children, that they are probably lacking in the thinking skills that allow you to solve problems like that.

When I went into programming they used to say that to be a great programmer you had to know math. I never understood that rational. I’ve programmed for 40 years and all of the the math I used was add, subtract, multiply and divide.

But, I did come to the understanding of that statement by saying that to know math you have to know how to solve problems. To be a programmer you have to be able to solve problems. Be it a customer bill or depretion. You have to figure out how to get from the known to the unknown and to be able to present it so that it’s understood.

Welcome to the real world.

So to be a machinist you have to solve problems, To be a welder you have to solve problems. To be a mechanic you have to be able to solve problems. To be a cashier you have to be able to solve problems. I love handing a cashier $2.13 when my bill is $1.83 and see what happens. I had them give me my 13 cents back and another 12 cents.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View ChuckV's profile


2930 posts in 3104 days

#4 posted 04-09-2012 12:33 AM

Very interesting.

I have noticed that there are some people who do have the required math skills, but not the ability to formulate a real-world problem in terms of those mathematical operations. It’s one thing to teach someone to do basic mathematics and a whole other thing to teach them how to apply it – if that can even be taught.

Another aspect is what I call “number sense” when I am working with my children. My example is usually a roommate at college who was a very intelligent engineering student. This was in the early 80’s and he was the first person that I had known to be overly dependent on a calculator. If a number came out, he just assumed that it was right, even when it was obviously and sometimes comically wrong. I still remember doing a physics problem with him involving determining the speed of a flying mosquito. His result was greater than the speed of light, but that seemed fine to him.

-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters

View bigkev's profile


198 posts in 2205 days

#5 posted 04-09-2012 12:44 AM

I’ve worked for the largest paper company in the world for over 20 years now and we measure rolls of paper down to 1/64 of an inch. Most customers ask for roll widths that have to be cut to within 1/32”. It seems everyone we hire we have to teach to read a tape measure. It makes me wonder if they even teach fractions in school anymore.

-- Kevin, South Carolina

View Tootles's profile


792 posts in 2079 days

#6 posted 04-09-2012 02:01 AM

A very interesting article. I will be sending it to a copuple of maths teachers that I know.

There are so many issues around maths that lead to this. It starts with parents and the wider society who have allowed it to become acceptable to say “I can’t do maths”, “I’m no good at maths” or just plain “I don’t like maths” and so there is no pressure for children to stretch themselves.

Next is the school system where times tables, long multiplication and long division are often not taught, but calculators are allowed in the class from the first year at school. It was controversial when I was in the first group of students in Year 10 who were allowed them. And even then, all our calculators did that was special was square roots, trig functions and logarithms so that we didn’t need to look up tables. These days, middle and high school students have graphics calulators better than anything I had as an engineering student. But it doesn’t make them understand the problems better. With a little understanding and my old “dinosaur” of a calculator, I was still able to solve problems quicker than the top dozen Year 11 students that I observed and worked with at a school last last year.

And as for fractions, well Australia is metric so we don’t have quite the same need as America to understand them, but no, there is not a great understanding of fractions.

It’s difficult, especially since I am now within the education system and, although I don’t, I could teach maths up to the very highest level within schools. All I can say is that, as much as was supposedly “wrong” with the education system that I went through when I was young, it did serve me well. We can only wait to see if my children can say the same. Such is progress I suppose.

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

View mtenterprises's profile


933 posts in 2270 days

#7 posted 04-09-2012 12:38 PM

Ok guys this is going to be a bit long but a math story that’s true.
Math is necessary not only for the trades but everyone. Now this is true it happened to me back in the late 90’s. I was living in a small city in a rural setting. One day I needed to purchase a case of oil so I went to the local auto parts store. When I got there something seemed a miss, ah the lights were out, the electricity was out. Ok not a problem, I walked in went and got my case of oil and plunked it down on the counter where the young clerk said sorry I can’t check you out the electricity is out. I said ok the case of oil is $XX.xx. To which he said but I cannot ring it up. (Side bar; Where I used to live stores still used a written reciept.) Getting a bit bent I said take a piece of paper and write down the bar code # and when the electricity comes on just ring it up then. Well he did get the # and the $$ then he said he could not figure the tax because the calculator didn’t work. To which i said it’s not battery opperated? Getting more angry I took his paper and calculated the tax for him and added it to the price. Ok folks this gets even better….. I handed him a $20 bill and he said he couldn’t make change. I again took the paper and calculated the change. Then again he said I’m sorry I can’t make you change. To which I replied WHY? And he said the cash register would not open. Now I was REALLY ANGRY and I said in a very firm voice,”Now look I know that there is a cash bag in the back go and get me my change!!!! Grudgingly he went and made change came back and gave it to me. Then he said what about a reciept? And I replied, Do as I told you in the first place take all this math from this paper and when the electricity comes back on just hammer it in, it will figure your inventory and everything else, the cash bag will come out correct and you made a sale. I satrted to leave and he said what about your reciept? To which I replied Do you think I’m going to return a case of oil throw it in the garbage? I walked out with him and the others there totally amazed. Now that was a true story not embellished in any way.
Here I sit 60 years old, legally unemployed, highly skilled in several trades and cannot get a job when companies hire people like this. Is there something wrong with this picture?


-- See pictures on Flickr - And visit my Facebook page -

View hooky's profile


364 posts in 2896 days

#8 posted 04-09-2012 01:06 PM

about 6 years ago i went to trade school as a 40 year old to become a cabinet maker all the other students were pretty much straight out of high school

what amazed me then was that i was the only student to pass the theory part of the course. Subjects that included learning about the machines and safety and lots of other work related subjects including trade maths.
the maths component was made using trade scenarios for maths problems like calculating areas for spraying contact glue and measuring lengths of material required for making window frames etc

I thought it was sad state of affairs for our school system that these students couldn’t problem solve through what i thought was simple maths (by the way i’m no genius)

i thought then that these children were the future of the cabinet making trade and they couldn’t work out quantities

i only hope that on the job training helps them because i cant see a future for them


-- Happiness is a way of travel , not a destination (Roy Goodman)

View Karson's profile


35047 posts in 3977 days

#9 posted 04-09-2012 05:51 PM

Mike: The cashiers are so tuned in to use the amount of the change back on the cash registers that they can’t even figure out how much change they need to calculate.

How many times have you gotten two nickles instead of a dime in your change back.

And if they enter in the wrong amount that you gave them they will give you back what the machine said. Doesn’t matter about the correct change. My daughter was a beginning cashier in a grocery store and she often came up short or long and it turned out that she was entering the wrong amount. She is now a practice administrator for a 75 Doctor Orthopedic practice. So she had the smarts but was careless in her data entry.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View Richforever's profile


757 posts in 3297 days

#10 posted 04-09-2012 06:15 PM

Before I was forced to “retire” because I couldn’t get a real job, I had a part-time ten hour per week retail clerk job at $10 per hour. This was my first “non-professional” employment. I was scheduled (probably illegally) for three shifts during the week in order to get in my ten hours. This involved up to six hours of commuting in heavy traffic, burning gasoline.

It is also the reason I switched to internet purchasing. A “retail associate” is supposed to do only what the computer tells him or her to do. The cash registers have small cameras to watch every movement the “retail associate” makes. “Training” involves signing statements attesting to corporate policies. Enterprise software runs the corporations; and employees are run by the computers. Younger employees easily accept this “non-thinking” role.

When I’m with someone who “wants to pick up something at the store”, I sit in the car and wait for them to do it.

Bottom line: employee training is less needed than many people think. Just do what a computer says to do!

-- Rich, Seattle, WA

View eddie's profile


8530 posts in 2191 days

#11 posted 04-09-2012 07:26 PM

good post Dan

i started this journey in wood working a year r so ago .had did some but not anything difficult. i go to a cabinet shop down the road from my home a bit to see a friend there we both study Hebrew and chat while on his breaks.what i am doing is building a gun storage system for home owners i got this design in my mind years ago now retired i’m trying to build it. i haven,t even got to it yet I’ve been having to learn so many different skills to do it and jigs after jig i,m having to build not counting the different tools required.started out i thought a table saw and a few other would do it Wrong.this cabinet shop is run by an old man in his 80s one day i meet him and told him what i was planing on doing he asked can you read a rule i said sure . he pointed at a old wooden ruler and ask for me to read it i did i said it a folding rule with a six inch extender he said whats it for.i said i guess for six more inches.he said like im telling you you need to learn to read ruler and measuring devices what you are wanting to build is not just a cabinet it leans more towards furniture and that a whole different animal than a cabinet. hes the one who suggest this lumberjocks site and some different books i have done what he said and realized i needed a lot more skills to do it .i did go to u tube and learn how to read a ruler the right way that little folding ruler dose a lot of stuff.

-- Jesus Is Alright with me

View RandyM68's profile


693 posts in 1895 days

#12 posted 04-09-2012 07:26 PM

I don’t know what caused it , but we are surrounded by idiots. It goes way deeper than basic math skills. Do you blame parents or teachers, computers or TV, society in general? I pick all of the above. I’ve worked in factories and machine shops for over 20 years. I have worked with many different machinists, programmers, engineers, draftsmen, and Q.C. inspectors. You’d think I know a lot of math whizzes, but I could really just name two. And they were old years ago. Most of the guys my age (45) and younger don’t really know much at all. Most, of the so called CNC machinists ,are just part loaders and button pushers. They can’t do anything without a set-up man to get the machine going for them. You have to teach them how to stick a part in and push the green button. You have to go back and check their work because they can’t read digital calipers, much less a vernier micrometer. You try to teach them, but some will never get it. Most of the programmers, draftsmen, designers, and engineers can’t do anything without their computer. For the last seven or so years I was the main programmer in a shop with thirty CNC mills and lathes. I learned how to program by reading the books while my machine was running. We had a programmer that got mad and quit because I was re-writing his programs by hand before we would run them. The next trained programmer they hired was even more of an idiot, he lasted less than two months before they fired him. I got his job, and his computer, because I could use my head, and not just some expensive software that does your thinking for you. We never missed him, either. I don’t know if their even is a solution to our idiot infestation. Does anyone know a good exterminator?

-- I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you. I'm sorry,thanks.

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5614 posts in 3289 days

#13 posted 04-09-2012 07:36 PM

My daughter is just learning fractions at school. Every time she observes the practical application of fractions I make sure it is a positive experience for her. We have fun with the numbers, I hope it sticks beyond grade three:-)

Why is it that some people are proud of their innumeracy? How many times have you been in conversation with someone and the occasion comes up to do some simple math in your head and the person blusters and says something like ’...I’m not good at that stuff, never have been…’ like it was okay not to be able to calculate 10 percent of something in your head (or something equally fundamental)?

It is not just the schools that are responsible for teaching our kids, we’ve got to expect more of the kids and ourselves when it comes to education. Why is it we glorify a fellow whom can through a football better than everyone else but the kid that wins a science fair, or gets straight As is scorned as a geek or nerd or some other derogatory appellation. How useful is that ball chucking over the ability to figure out how to make your truck more fuel efficient, of to figure out how to stop a saw blade ripping through your hand? Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with sports its just the priority we give them that bugs me…

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View Jimbo4's profile


1493 posts in 2340 days

#14 posted 04-09-2012 10:40 PM

Common sense will dictate – here – what a forklift will handle at a certain altitude – not – if it’s 1/64 inch over size.
As a forklift operator in a previous life, and with the load limit indicated, I personally would not have lifted more than one 1500# pallet at a time. Too much to go wrong, as the C/G is over the front axle. While loading aircraft,
I operated a center swivel fork lift that swung left/right in the center, rotated off horizontal/vertical in the center,
with forks that could be operated independently of each other (up, down, side to side). It was also set up to lift 18,000#s, but that did not mean I would, only that it could. That was proven one day when some stupid Army ignoramouses listed a pallet of ammo as 11,000#s, when in fact it weighed 21,000#s! No lift available. Now I know somewhere out in LJ land is saying, “What is he talking about?” Commonm sense, and safety, NOT whether the math is correct to the deminsions of a liftable object by forklift. Weight, and C/G, will be the factor. I also know someone will be saying,”This ain’t about how many skids can be lifted”. Ah, but it is. Read the first paragraph. It’s about commom sense, not math. Of course I realize that math can be a factor here, but does not out weigh the primary target. By the way – that forklift was a hydraulic nighmare!

-- BOVILEXIA: The urge to moo at cows from a moving vehicle.

View HamS's profile


1811 posts in 1966 days

#15 posted 04-09-2012 11:08 PM

There is another issue here and that is the training of math teachers. What we are talking about is applied computational skills, not mathematics. MAth teachers are trained in mathematics which is to computational skills as drawing is to engineering. Consequently, few math teachers have much of a real understanding of application of mathematics in the real world. I really finally learned math when I took a differential equations course from an engineer, not a mathematician. Mathematicians can prove it precisly, but have little to no clue about what it is good for. Of course I am married to a mathematician and that might have colored my thinking a bid.

I may be a bit prejudiced about this, but the computer can do the calculations quicker and faster than the human can and as long as the inputs are correct and the programming is correct the result will be correct. There really is no point to not using the tools that are available. Any business that relies on humans to do their computations is not going to be in business for long.

I have been a programmer for over thirty years and I am the son of a programmer and the father of a programmer, so my opinion may be slightly tainted with self interest. Dad was a staff mathematician at an engineering firm, a position that no longer exists. In 1955 he went to work for IBM. The computations for harmonic analysis of a 12 cylinder compressor took six months to do with paper and slide rule, in 1960 that six months could be done in 12 hours, today it can be done in milliseconds. There is really little need to compute multi variant differential equations anymore, as long as the computer guy can program the numerical method which is close enough and so much quicker.

All that being said I am probably one of those ignoramuses that lists the pallet as 11,00# because the book says it should weigh 11,00# we don’t have a flippin scale on our tank. (With my tongue firmly in my cheek)

-- Haming it up in the 'bash.

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