A few months ago, I posted a few thoughts about some of the skills
and discipline it takes to be what I call a "real" machinist. (See "Re:
Need Opinions Please", 10/28/99) In response, I received some very
flattering comments, for which I'm grateful. As several others noted,
though, the general tone of posts in the "Need Opinions" thread came
from people who are apparently unhappy, frustrated, or somehow
dissatisfied with the work they do, the pay they get for it, or with the
state of the machining industry, as a whole. Several complained that
they don't make very good livings as machinists, or didn't believe they
could, no matter what their skills or experience. Others suggested to
the person who started the discussion that he should find another line
of work, and abandon something that he's already spent 5 years learning.
Recently, a thread called "A More Useful Survey" asked
questions about what schools should be teaching, and what young people
need to be learning, in order to enter the metalworking world well
prepared. As expected, this discussion also brought a variety of
comments like "tell them to become plumbers, 'cause machinists don't
make enough money."
I found all this very disturbing; and so I thought I'd
attempt to share a related set of thoughts, not about how to be a
machinist, but about why.
For the sake of this discussion, the term "machinist" is
broadly, and includes a huge variety of skills that make up the world of
metalworking. Engineering is related, and often indistinguishable, and
is included as part of "The Most Important Profession", as well. The
special skills used by people like die makers, welders, heat-treaters,
and others, may also be considered a part of "the greater metal-working"
First, the most basic fact: Everything we have, everything
everything we see, taste, hear, smell, feel, or rely on for our way of
life, and our very existence, at this moment in human history, has been
made possible by engineers and machinists.
Yes, I meant that. I don't believe it's an exaggeration.
Look around you. Try to think of anything in your
life that isn't
somehow dependent on the metal-working arts and sciences. You'll find
You're sitting at a computer. It's cyberstuff, and
information technology, right? Yes, partly. But the monitor you're
looking at is, in fact, a plastic box, made in molds that were designed
by engineers and built by machinists. The display screen on the monitor
is a glass tube, formed in a machine that was designed by engineers and
built by machinists. The circuitry that fills the rest of the monitor
is made of copper, and gold, and silicon, and plastic and glass and
more... all formed, or drawn, or spun, or mixed, or burned or wound...
or something, in machines that were designed by engineers and built by
machinists. All the information in the world won't matter - it won't be
storable, portable, communicable, reproducible, or ever turned into real
products, devices, or tangible things of any kind, without someone to
make stuff out of metal.
Don't shake your head, yet. I'm just getting started.
Take a breath of air. Is it clean? Is it warmer
than the chilly
winter air outside? Is it cooler, if you live in a warm climate? How'd
it get that way? The furnace or air conditioner you take for granted is
made mostly of metal. There are tubes, extruded in huge hydraulic
machines, and precision valves to control dangerous gasses, and tiny
balls in tiny bearings that let a motor run quietly, endlessly, to keep
you warm, or cool, and comfortable. Who made those bearings? Who made
sure that the valve would seal just right, and open easily, every single
time? Who turned the pistons and made the dies for that extruding
machine? How were the holes punched in the sheet metal that covers the
furnace or air conditioner? How did they roll the steel or aluminum
into thin sheets, and bend it into all the shapes that make up the
ductwork? How, and who?
Step outside for a minute, and look at the rest of the
you'll need to turn a door-handle, and the door will swing on hinges.
Where did those come from?) Look around. Are you standing on a
concrete sidewalk? The truck that poured the cement, and the tools that
smoothed it, and the pumps that brought the water to mix it, and more,
were made of countless pieces of metal, made by machinists, or by people
with varying parts of a machinist's skill, doing things planned and
prepared for them by engineers and machinists.
Look behind you at the building you just left. Think
girders, or wooden framework. Think of rolling mills, or sawmills and
planer machines. Think of carpenters using hammers, or erectors with
cranes and riveting machines. Think of where those tools came from, and
who built them, and what skills were involved.
You're wearing clothing. Probably cotton or wool,
and leather, and
some synthetic stuff mixed in for comfort, or insulation, or
durability. Who built the parts for the machines that wove the fabric,
and cut it, and sewed it? Who made the stamping dies that formed the
bodies of the pressure gauges that watched the mixture of chemicals that
became nylon, or dacron, or polyester? Who made the parts, that made up
the grinder, that sharpened the blades, that cut a piece of cowhide into
the exact shape of a shoe that fits your foot?
Machinists did. From the moment the first human mind
first sword or plowshare, and hammered it into reality from metals he
found in the ground, human history has been shaped by those who could
shape metal. Not alone, of course. Nobody has a monopoly on skill or
knowledge. But wherever skill or knowledge are put to use - whenever
ideas, information, inventions, or dreams are given solid form, that
form has been touched by a machinist's skilled hands.
Think of an activity. Any activity. Think of
any part of your life,
or any other life, and try to find some part of it that doesn't have a
machinist's fingerprints on it somehow, somewhere.
Go to the doctor. His world is filled with precision
made by machines that were made by machinists. From a state-of-the art
MRI machine, or laser-surgery device, to the little card of paper
showing the date of your next appointment, a doctor uses the products of
the metalworking industries, or tools made possible by engineering and
machining, to do every part of his job.
Smile at someone, and you're greeting them with teeth,
stronger and healthier than they could ever be without toothpastes and
mouthwashes and soft-fiber brushes you'd never have, and never be able
to afford, if not for the millions of metal parts in countless kinds of
amazing machines that make possible the reliable, inexpensive mass
production of almost anything we want or need. Then smile again, for
the people who made the parts, who built the machines, and who keep them
running and producing, every single day.
Try to imagine a world without machines, and without people
and build and operate them.
Go to a forest. Someplace wild, and as untouched
by human hands and
minds as anyplace on Earth can be. Alaska maybe, or the jungles of the
Amazon. How do you get there? How do you even know where there is,
except from a map or book, printed on a press whose parts were made by
machinists. Is it a modern book, with color pictures and accurate
maps? Then the satellites and aircraft and cameras and other devices
that made the pictures and maps possible have machinists' hearts and
minds in them in an endless variety of ways. So does the saw that cut
the trees to make paper for the books and maps, and the machines in the
paper mill, and the mixers and pulverizers in the ink-plant... and more.
Do you have a compass to help find your way around in the
a GPS receiver, maybe? Do you have a knife, or a set of lightweight
aluminum cookware in your backpack, so you can have dinner when you camp
tonight? A flashlight? A book of matches? Guess where those things
Ok, let's say you didn't bring any of that along.
You really truly
want to experience nature directly, without technology, and without help
from technology's most constant providers. You're naked, unarmed, and
For the people who once lived the way you're living in
this moment of
communing with nature, survival rates were brutally, incredibly small.
Starvation was a real and constant presence, every single day. Diseases
that we don't think twice about today once filled whole cemeteries, or
decimated entire continents. A broken bone or an infected cut meant
slow and painful death. And those noises you hear in the dark aren't
just zoo animals, now. They're predators. And they're hungry. And you
don't have a machinist around to make you a gun or a knife, or even an
iron spearhead. Welcome to hell.
Even in this fantasy example, of course, machinists are
keep you alive, since you grew up in a world that depends on them. Do
you have ground glass lenses on your eyes, to improve your vision? Who
made the grinders? Do you have fillings in your teeth, so you can chew
roots and berries to survive? Who made that dentist's drill, and all
his other tools? Who made the machines that grind silver alloys into
power that becomes the amalgam in your fillings? Did you think to get
some immunization shots, to protect you from dreaded illnesses, before
booking your vacation to this jungle paradise? Were the vaccines
injected with a tiny, sharp, perfectly polished stainless steel needle?
Guess who made it, and then get down on your knees and thank him or her
- quick, before the predators get you!
Try to write a poem, without using machine-made paper,
or a pen or
pencil, or even a primitive quill. You'll need a knife or trimming tool
to keep the quill sharp, or it won't work very long.
Try to have a dream that isn't set in a place that's somehow
by the skills of machinists and engineers. Try to make a dream come
true, and you'll need a machinist to help you.
The Most Important Profession touches you, protects you,
and comforts you, in more ways than I could name if I sat here and typed
for a year. That's WHY it's the Most Important Profession. No other
form of human endeavor is so deeply and necessarily a part of anything
and everything we do, or have ever done, or might ever want to do, in
the foreseeable future.
Yes, there are other important professions, of course.
them. We couldn't live without farmers, or miners, or a thousand other
kinds of skilled people who make up a whole and functioning world. We
depend, completely and constantly, on people with an incredible range of
skills and knowledge. But every single one of THOSE people depends on
engineers and machinists, in everything that they do. No exceptions.
Not even one.
Those of us who work with metal provide, truly, literally,
constantly, the tools that make a technological civilization possible.
There was a time, of course, when the tools were simpler, and when the
machinists were called blacksmiths... but the principles were the same.
What we do today in a modern shop is merely an extension of the basics.
We do it better, more efficiently, more precisely, more easily; but
we're still doing the necessary work of building and shaping the most
fundamental parts of the world we live in - and the world that everyone
else lives in, too, whether they know it or not.
So, if metalworking is so vital, so central to our way
of life, so
necessary to civilization itself, then why does it seem that the people
who work in the Most Important Profession are so seldom allowed to live
at the top of society's food chain? Why don't lathe operators drive
Rolls Royces, and CNC programmers live in 20 room mansions? Why don't
our town halls fly the flags at half-mast when a machinist or engineer
dies? And why don't HBO and Warner Bros. make movies about the dramas
that take place when men and women do battle with solid steel?
Because we don't insist on it. It's our own damned fault.
We have allowed our profession to become weak and diluted.
sold our skills to the wrong kinds of people, for the wrong rewards, at
the wrong times, for too many years and generations. We've done our
jobs well; but for all the wrong reasons. And we've demanded too little
Consider some other professions, just for perspective:
If you wanted to make your living as an airline pilot (flying
machines that are built by machinists), your most likely path to that
goal would be through the military. You'd start with a high-school
education, at least; and probably a college degree, these days. Then,
as reward for your years of patient study, and your dreams of soaring
through the air, you'd get to endure weeks of hard, demeaning work, just
to get through boot camp. You'd suffer insults, abuse, and hardships,
just to take a single step toward your goal. Then you'd do more
training, and classes, and more training, and more. You'd be tested,
challenged, and dropped like a rock, the first time you failed, or
complained. The Army, or Navy, or Air Force aren't going to invest
years in training you, if you're not the best, most promising candidate
they can find. If you managed to qualify for flight school, you'd be
sure that countless others had not, and that you'd been selected as one
of the best available - before you ever got to see the inside of a
military aircraft. Then pre-flight training, and flight training, and
practice, and more; and all the other duties and responsibilities and
rules of life in the military... and then years of flying for your
country, to earn your way into the right kind of aircraft, so you can
fly more hours, and more, on your way to maybe, someday, getting to fly
for yourself. And, of course, your pay scale during most of this
years-long ordeal is nothing to be envied.
Why would someone do that? Because they want to fly.
to them. It's worth it. It's got to be earned. And because society as
a whole places enough value on the skills of a good pilot to make it
worthwhile, and to provide good earnings, for those few who succeed.
If you wanted to be a doctor, you'd have a hard road, too.
Outstanding grades in high-school, and in 4 years of college, before you
get to stand in line with all the other would-be med students, and hope
that you're good enough to make the cut. You'd be tested, and
challenged, and dropped like a rock if you weren't part of the cream of
the crop. No med school is going to invest years in training you, if
you aren't the best and most promising student they can find. If you
manage to get into a medical college, you can be sure that countless
others didn't. Then you'd do years of hard study, and internships, and
tests, and long, LONG hours, just to get out of school with an MD. And
then residency, and more training, and more and more; and you're 30
years old, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to the folks who
make student loans, and just about ready to start earning an actual
If you wanted to be a writer, how many stories and articles
manuscripts would you need to write, and submit, and have rejected,
before the very first editor published some tiny little bit of your
lifelong dream? And how many more years would you work, and wait, and
"pay your dues", before you could develop your skills, and attract an
audience, to sell enough to feed yourself without having to wait tables
or wash cars, while trying to keep your dream alive? It's a long, hard
road, most of the time. And, if you one day find your name in big
letters in a bookstore window, or on somebody's bestseller list, you can
be sure that there are countless others who never even came close.
If you wanted to be an architect, the story wouldn't be
different. School is demanding, expensive, and consuming. The first
job you'd get, after earning your degree, would probably be as a
draftsman, or detailer, or some other kind of third-level assistant to a
"real" architect. You'd spend years helping others do the work they
want done, and doing it the way they told you to do it. You'd see
buildings going up - real, solid images of the same dreams that drive
you, deep down inside; and you'd know that your only contribution was to
check the prints for the heating ducts, because that was your part of
the job. You'd do a long, LONG apprenticeship, learning the business,
as well as the craft. You'd have to excel, in the eyes of every person
in a position to judge you. You'd have to be patient, and energetic,
and watch vigilantly for every chance to advance, to grow, and to work
toward a day when it might be your own design that takes your breath
away, even if it's just a garage or a new porch. Still, if you did
succeed, and you did manage to become a successful architect, you could
be sure that there were countless others who couldn't wait, or who
wouldn't make the sacrifice, and who'd never feel what you feel at the
sight of everything you've ever dreamed and done.
Why would someone do all that? Because they want
something important to them. It's worth it. It's got to be earned.
And if you wanted to be a machinist? You'd go get
a job in a machine
shop, and call yourself a machinist. No, it's not really that simple;
but it's close. Too many people call themselves machinists who aren't
truly skilled at all. Too many people, who don't even understand our
skills, lay claim to the pay, and respect, and job opportunities, that
only real skills should command. And every dollar they earn, and every
job they get, and every ounce of respect they receive, is borrowed from
someone who HAS earned the skills; but has failed to protect them from
impostors and hitch-hikers.
What would happen to the medical profession if anybody
that worked in
a hospital and owned a stethoscope were allowed to call himself a
doctor? What if they were allowed to treat patients, and prescribe
drugs, and perform surgery, just because there weren't enough trained
and licensed doctors to go around?
What would happen to the airline industry if any self-taught,
self-certified almost-aviator could apply for a pilot's position at a
major commercial airline? What if the airlines hired people like that,
because they needed more pilots, and couldn't find enough good ones?
Would you want to live in a building that was designed
carpenter or plumber who'd followed enough of somebody else's
instructions that he thought he could start doing the whole job
himself? I wouldn't.
As ridiculous as those questions may sound, they represent
the kinds of problems that have nearly destroyed the metalworking
I saw an auto accident, last week. A car ran a red
another hit it broadside. I don't know just how fast the cars were
going; but I could see that the car with the right-of-way almost managed
to stop. The tires screamed, the car slowed to a fraction of it's
original speed; and the driver, passenger, and a child in the back seat,
And it got me to thinking...
An ambulance took the injured people from the accident
scene to a
nearby hospital, where doctors would treat their injuries. Those
doctors probably earn $100, or $200, or more, per hour.
How much did the machine operators make, who turned the
on that car? How well were the people paid who made the stamped buckles
for the seat belts, or who drilled the precise little holes in parts for
the air-bag assembly. $10 per hour? $20?
Not nearly as much as the doctors, for sure. Yet
it was those
unseen, underpaid people in the metalworking professions who really
saved some lives that day. If not for them, and for the skill and
services they provided, the doctors would've had nothing more to work
with than bags of dead flesh.
We tend to pay people in any profession based on two key
1: How many of us are willing to buy what they offer, no matter what the
reason. And 2: How difficult is it to find the minimum level of skill
or productivity that we feel safe with, and how much do we have to pay
to be sure that the supply is always adequate.
The first of those pay categories includes people like
and athletes, whose services are optional parts of a culture that can
afford leisure and entertainment.
The other set of pay standards, based on need and demand,
for doctors, pilots, dentists, architects, and others that we know are
people with rare and hard-won skills. In some things, we really do
demand the very best we can find, or at least the best we can afford.
The risks of buying cheap are too great, and too obvious, when life
itself is at stake.
But what about machinists? If we provide the very
civilization as we know it, then that's pretty vital and important,
isn't it? And if EVERYBODY in the whole world uses what we make, then
that should be enough sales volume to earn us some decent wages,
Yes, it should. If only we understood our own value.
If only we had
as much respect for our own skills as we have for the skills of others.
If only we didn't lie to ourselves and cheat ourselves, quite so often
and so badly.
No good doctor would practice in a hospital that expected
him to work
side-by-side with unskilled charlatans. No sensible patient would go to
No competent pilot would ever fly a plane if he knew that
got his wings from a mail-order flight school. And no sane passenger
would ever set foot on such a plane.
No honest architect would agree to design an office building,
knew that the foundation was planned and executed by someone whose work
he didn't respect and trust.
But machinists? A whole different story. Name
one real, skilled
machinist - just ONE - who doesn't work every day, somehow, with people
who aren't truly fit to pull the chips out of his machine. I'm betting
that you can't. No, I don't mean trainees. They're a different issue.
But how many of the precious, irreplaceable hours of your working life
have you spent helping people you weren't responsible for training, or
who didn't want to be trained, and whom you didn't think were trainable
in the first place? How many taps have you pulled out of expensive
castings, because the guys who broke them didn't know how. How many
machines have you fixed, and how many tools and holders have you
replaced, and how many fixtures have you welded and re-machined, because
somebody was doing something without the skill to do it carefully, and
How many days have you worked overtime just because somebody
didn't do their job well enough, or didn't get it done when they should
have. And was it you that worked the extra hours BECAUSE you had the
skill to get things right? Was it you that had to climb inside some big
piece of machinery, looking for the broken parts, when the person who
broke them got to stand by and drink coffee while he watched you? Is it
YOU that people come to, because they know you can do what they need?
Do they come to you last, AFTER they've let every other creature on
Earth try and fail at something you could have done, or showed them how
to do, the first time around?
How many times, and how many ways, have you done all those
Near where I once lived, there was a guy who made at least
a part of
his living by repairing lawnmowers. On the front of his garage, in big,
clear letters, he had his basic price list. It looked like this:
Lawnmowers fixed - Guaranteed Quality
Basic Repairs: $25.00
If you tried to fix it yourself: $50.00
If you and your son and your brother-in-law
all tried to fix it: $200.00
I think this guy had the right idea.
I also think he had a lot to teach those of us who make
cutting metal. We will never get the respect, the wages, or the
recognition that ought to go with our skills, if we don't believe in our
own value, and ACT like we believe in it, every single minute. Equally
important, we will never be properly rewarded for our years of work and
learning if we aren't willing to draw clear and distinct lines between
ourselves, and others who haven't made the investment of time and energy
that we've made.
Please don't get me wrong. I'd be the LAST person
to advocate some
kind of licensing or government blessing to attempt to validate my
skills. I don't believe there's any way that someone in Washington, or
in a state capitol, is likely to know more about my ability and worth
than my customers, employees, or co-workers. But it took me as many
years to learn what I know about metal-cutting as it takes a doctor or a
dentist to learn his or her skills. It's often much HARDER for me to
gain the trust and respect that lets me use my skills fully, since I
DON'T have a license or certificate that makes me appear well-trained
And I'm hardly unique. Everyone who truly knows how
to work with
metals has invested years of his or her life, and has probably
accomplished the equivalent of a university degree - several times
over. But we don't feel like professionals, if we envy the pay and
working hours of plumbers or electricians. And we don't act like
professionals, if we continue to complain about our lives, and never do
what's needed to change them. And we don't deserve to be treated like
professionals, if we fail to hold ourselves, and our profession, to the
right kinds of very high standards.
We're people who will work for hours, to achieve the most
standards imaginable for something like the flatness of a ground
surface, or the roundness of a hole, if we know that its function
depends on it being just right. And then we'll hand that same,
perfectly formed, excruciatingly precise bit of our life's work to
someone we don't respect, who couldn't have made what we just handed
them, and whom we don't hold to any particular standards at all. We
demand near perfection from ourselves, and demand nearly nothing from
We're people who'd shut down a machine-tool, and refuse
to let it
run, if we thought it couldn't be trusted with the work it's supposed to
do. Yet we accept errors, omissions, carelessness, and worse, from the
people who'll operate that same machine-tool, once we've fixed it and
made it right with our own skill and energy.
We're people who rage in anger when an employer or company
spends only $100 to buy a cheap milling cutter, instead of $125 for one
that would be better, more reliable, and last longer. And then we'll
quietly accept the fact that the shop is filled with workers who earn
$9.00 an hour, because people like us, who can do a better job, are too
rare and expensive.
We're people who've spent years learning a craft, and then
business, in order to build or buy a shop of our own, and to make our
own best try at our own little piece of the American Dream. And then we
spend the rest of our lives protecting our business, and our dreams,
from lawyers, and tax collectors, and union leaders, and more, who think
that their dreams give them the right to consume ours, and who succeed
because we let them, or because we think we can't stop them, even when
we know that they couldn't live a week without us.
We're people who won't let a single speck of dirt
into a precision
gearbox we're supposed to repair, or a hydraulic system we're trusted to
assemble and test. But what kinds of crud and pollution do we allow
into our lives, our workplaces, and even our own minds, when we think
about ourselves and our work?
And, more important: What can we do to change?
I have some suggestions. Some ideas, at least.
But I'm going to
stop here, before this post gets any longer; and I'm going to ask those
who are interested to think about what I've said already. I'd like to
hear how others feel, while I'm figuring out the best way to write my
own thoughts and proposals.
I first got into the metal-working business by luck, mostly;
fell in love with it the very first day of my very first job in a shop,
28 years ago. Since that day, I've never done, and never wanted to do,
anything else. It matters to me; and I really do believe that what I do
is, or at least could be, the Most Important Profession.
Let's see what you think. I'll finish my little essay
in a couple
days, if anyone wants to hear the second half.