The Joy of Tinkering

Talk to anyone in a skilled industry—automotive and truck repair and service, plumbing, carpentry, electrical contracting, construction, manufacturing—and you will hear the same lament: it's getting harder and harder to find qualified workers.

The reasons for the shortage of skilled workers are complicated. One reason is that there are so many directions a young person can take when deciding on a career today: college, trade schools, the military or the service industry.

Another is the lack of skills training in the educational system. Schools have been forced to scale back skills-training programs drastically due to cuts in local, state and federal budgets and the high cost of equipment and liability insurance.

It's a sad fact of today's fast-paced society that few of us can spare the time or afford the equipment needed to work on our homes or personal vehicles—and our children learn by our example. The "do-it-yourself" market share is gradually migrating to the "do-it-for-me" category.

There is also an undeniable trend by some educators and parents to push young people to college and white collar professions. Some people suffer from the uniformed opinion that the trades are low-paying, dirty work with little opportunity for advancement or job satisfaction.

As a result of these factors, few young people are exposed to the trades—either at school or at home.

Not so long ago, students as young as the seventh and eighth grade were able to take "shop" classes: electrical, auto, metal, woodworking, and so on. Some of us old "gearheads" already had cars that we were working on in our early teens, so we would be ready to hit the road once we hit the magic age of 16. For me, my career in the automotive and heavy duty industry grew directly from the interest I developed in my youth while in auto shop.

There is a growing movement to address the decline of skilled workers, and the people involved include educators, professionals, parents, legislators—and at least one celebrity.

John Ratzenberger, the actor best known for his portrayal of Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all mailman on "Cheers," is using his celebrity status to revive young people's interest in the trades. An accomplished actor, screenwriter, director, producer and entrepreneur, Ratzenberger has a deep respect for the skilled professions, which he highlighted on his television program, "Made in America."

Ratzenberger and other concerned groups and businesses have established the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation. Its mission, according to its Web site, is "to avert a growing crisis in America, one that is occurring because too few young people now develop the kind of manual skills required by industries, workshops and engineering practices.

"Through mentoring programs, education and media awareness, NBTF will once again introduce young people to the pleasures of tinkering. And in that way, we will create the next generation of artisans, inventors, engineers, repairmen and skilled workers—in short, a self-sufficient, self-sustaining society."

Ratzenberger recently took his cause to Washington, D.C. He met with a group of congressmen with strong populations of manufacturers in their districts who have formed a manufacturers "caucus," or group of representatives with a common cause.

One of this group's goals is to expose young people to the trades early in their career decision-making process so that more high school students would elect to enter those fields—creating a stable employee base for the manufacturing and trade industries.

By providing a good solid base of knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals through vocational/technical courses, more student will go on to technical colleges and trade schools and become the truck and car technicians, vehicle and component assembly technicians, master electricians, plumbers, and carpenters of the future.

These fields represent good paying, long term careers for many of our nation's workforce. Through the efforts of Ratzenberger, the Congressional Manufacturing Caucus and other concerned groups, we can avert a national crisis and provide the engine for our national economy.

I urge you to visit the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation at for more information and ways to get involved.