From Troubled Youth to Well Paid Professional

How do you go from troubled youth with jail time to Cadillac driving skilled  professional with 8 weeks of training? The trick is to get the right training. 

You can see more of  Noel’s story at:

     In the Shifting Gears Episode of Launch Point we told Noel’s story. Noel had been headed down the wrong path but after he learned completed our program where we offer training in partnership with the MassMEP  and Quinsigamond Community College things were looking up.
     In this program we empower people with limited or no manufacturing training or experience to compete for some of the best and highest paying jobs in industry in just 8 weeks.  These 8 weeks are intensive on some of the days the students are in class from 6AM to 4 or 5 PM with just a short break at midday. The trainees learn both soft skills like teamwork and work etiquette and hard skills like CNC Setup and Programming Techniques. They get resume help and interview coaching.
     All of the trainees in Noel’s class had jobs before the class was over, ten of them hired by Siemens before the class even started, hired that is, pending successful completion of the training.
     We have been teaching classes like the one Noel took for most of a decade now and there are dozens of stories as uplifting as this one. When we first met with Jeremy Bout, director and producer of the Launch Point series it was both easy and difficult to choose which one to tell.


manufacturing the future of the world

It takes a village to raise a child. What does it take to raise village? It takes people coming together sharing resources to meet common needs. This is where manufacturing started. It started with the caveman, who was good at making stone tools and not so good at hunting, making tools and trading them to hunters for food. As villages grew into towns, towns into cities, and now into global villages the scaling factor has always been manufacturing. Throughout all of history and prehistory we have been manufacturing the future of the world.
     What is the future we are manufacturing now with a department of the US government considering changing the official definition of manufacturing to include  “Factoryless Goods Producers” (FGPs) (see It Takes a Factory to Make a Manufacturer.)

The future is what we make of it and if we are not making anything then the future is what someone else makes of it.

   Regardless of your opinion on FGPs please take a moment and consider the question. Designating FGPs as manufacturing companies will certainly improve the “manufacturing numbers,” much like recognizing that McDonalds is really doing assembly and packaging not cooking would. Manufacturing in it’s most fundamental sense is the transformation of raw materials into something someone else wants. It’s those processes that transform the raw materials that actually add value and create wealth and when it comes down to it, it’s really all about wealth.
     Wealth can be found (dug up out of the ground), wealth can be stolen (usually with an army), and wealth can be created (through manufacturing). Other than those three possibilities the only thing we can do is trade it and move it around. The banking industry, the financial markets, the FGPs, and all of the service industries simply serve to move wealth around. If all a society is doing is moving wealth around without any wealth creation it will naturally become highly stratified with the wealthiest people becoming more and more wealthy and the less wealthy becoming poorer and poorer.
     If a society on the other hand is continuously creating new wealth through manufacturing wealth will be unlimited. In a society of unlimited wealth there will be extremely wealthy people but there will also be a strong middle class and there will be real possibilities to move from the poorest classes to the wealthiest classes with hard work and creative thought. Which village would you rather live in, the one with unlimited wealth or the other one?

no skills gap?

I won’t say there is no skills gap. In Massachusetts alone right now there are about 250,000 unemployed people and at the same time about 130,000 unfilled jobs with the employers reporting that they cannot find skilled workers. No I won’t say there’s is no gap. There is obviously a gap. The other thing that’s obvious, at least to me, is that the problem isn’t a gap of skill. The solution to a skills gap is always training and we are really good at training. 
     We are really good at training; one program I’m involved with has trained almost 200 people to become operators of computer controlled manufacturing equipment over the past few years. In this program we help long term unemployed people gain highly sought after skills in a very short time. In a period of about 9 weeks we can enable someone who has never been in a manufacturing facility to get a job as a CNC machine tool operator with basic programming and setup skills.
     By the graduation day, for any session of this class, almost every trainee already has a job. The rest typically have one within a few weeks. We’ve even had one local employer hire 10 out of 12 trainees  from a session of the class before it even started.  No training isn’t the problem, we can do training.
     We can do training, but 200 is a drop in the bucket compared to the 130,000 potential jobs out there and that is just considering Massachusetts. When we started this project I assumed that the cost of delivering the training and our ability to fund it would be the limiting factor in the number and frequency of classes we could offer. The actual limit on the other hand has been our ability to sign up qualified candidates.
     Its not that the other 249,800 unemployed people in the state are too stupid to complete our training on the contrary most of the people not applying could fly through the class.
     The primary problem with our class is that people aren’t interested in careers in manufacturing. They think those jobs are dirty and beneath them. They might love to watch Mike Rowe but they don’t want a “Dirty Job”.
     This is especially sad because, although there are dirty jobs in manufacturing, those aren’t the ones the employers are having trouble filling. Hungry people with no skills take those jobs.  The jobs that sit unfilled are good jobs with good salaries.  In the program mentioned above the placement rate is over 90% and and the starting salaries average close to $37,000 per year.  These are well paying jobs in good industries making the things our society needs to exist.  If the problem was simply one of skills we would have crossed it years ago with programs like this one.
     It’s a perception gap not a skills gap that we need to cross.

why do we engineer?

Why do we engineer?  We engineer to enable manufacturing!

Why do we manufacture?  We manufacture to enable society!

Our entire society is based on manufacturing,  this process of taking raw materials and turning them into useful goods.  The things we use the things we surround ourselves with even most of the food we eat has been manufactured before we see or touch it.

Can we make learning videos instead of teaching videos?

I can’t say I’m part of the ME Generation, and with that said, or rather not said, I can say that when I want to know something, unless I’m standing next to someone I’m pretty sure knows the answer, the first thing I do is Google it.  Then I look for a video (preferred) or a web page that explains it to me.  I’m forty three years old, or as I like to call it thirty-thirteen years old.  My generation literally grew up with computers.  I remember the first PCs.  I remember the launch of Macintosh.  I was there when our rich college friends first got PCs with color monitors and the rest of us reminded them that green is a color too.

Now as an engineering professor at a world renowned university my colleges and I regularly lament the fact that our students don’t do the reading and unless we somehow make it required they are likely to skip class in droves. I can tell you emphatically that that it is not their fault!  If we as faculty cannot engage them we deserve to be talking to an empty room and we are doing them and extremely expensive disservice.

So how do we engage them?  I’ve tried things like:

  • in class quizzes,
  • pre-lecture quizzes based on the reading,
  • post-lecture where the answers were only covered in lecture, not in the reading…
None of those things have really seemed to work for and I think it’s for the same reason that although I read almost continuously in high school, on the bus to school, on the bus back from school sitting in bed at night, sitting in the back of the class room,  I don’t think I ever finished one of the books assigned by my English teachers.

What does seem to work is to interact with them, to have a conversation, to ask questions and pull the answers out of them, to give them ownership of he class and its direction and to act as a guide on a journey of learning.  This can be hard to do as you might imagine with a lecture hall full of introverted engineering students.  I’ve been known to resort to throwing candy to (at) students who participate in my ongoing conversation and I’ve made it a habit of showing at least one YouTube video or clip in each class.  It’s these videos that I think are both part of the solution to the problem of engagement and part of the problem itself.

I’ve been using video as a teaching tool for as long as I’ve been teaching, and when I tell my class that they have to watch “my teaching video” —  of me talking about something — if they want to know — what I want them to learn — about that something; it doesn’t matter if the video is any good, I have a captive audience.  This has lead me to “produce” a few good videos and a lot of less good, even bad, videos.

A bad video is much much worse than a bad lecture.  I know from experience that some students will be embarrassed to fall asleep or even zone out in class but will think nothing of falling asleep in front of YouTube or more likely the’ll click on a more interesting video.
A good video can be much better than a good lecture the students can refer back to it they can share it with others they can help spread that knowledge.  A good video is a learning video not a teaching video.

Look for our new learning videos in May

Do engineers really need to know anything?

I’m not sure how frequently something needs to be repeated before it becomes cliché but there is a saying that I’ve heard so many times and that I’ve even used in class that I think fits, at least in the limited circles I travel in.

They say: “Engineers don’t need to know anything; they just need to know what book to look in.”

Well OK – That’s a little like saying anyone could be a great chef if they have the right cook book, and by extension must make Google  the world’s greatest engineer. (

I can tell you that as an engineer you do in fact need to be good at using reference materials, and knowing which book to look in certainly speeds the process.  In reality, though, simply owning the books isn’t enough.  You need a clear understanding of the fundamental physics of the situation, to know when you are approaching the edges of those laws, when the things you are doing might even expand those edges; and you need to be really good at solving those pesky word problems from middle school.

Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. Einstein’s reply was “I don’t know, why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?”*
As an engineer you will remember the facts that you use often, as to the others, it is sufficient to understand that they exist, how to find them, and how to use them when you need to.


best and worst of the labs

This week I asked the students a few questions.  I had a few objectives:

  1. Evaluate lab instructors (based on student’s comfort level coming into the Lab Final)
  2. Evaluate students comfort level coming into the Lab Final
  3. Evaluate the the perceived value of individual lab exercises based on student feedback.
Students were asked to answer the following questions:
  1. What lab section are you in?
  2. If the Lab Final was right now, are you ready?
  3. Which lab exercise was the biggest waste of time?
  4. Which lab exercise was the most valuable?
Well, out of 73 people registered for the class 38 passed in a card.  Batting 500 on attendance on what was possibility the nicest day of the year isn’t too bad since all of the lectures are videoed and posted about 2 hours after the end of class.

If the Lab Final was right now, are you ready?

I first sorted the responses by section then counted the responses to the 2nd question.  
Section Ready Not Ready % Ready
? 1 1 50%
1 5 3 63%
2 7 4 64%
3 6 2 75%
4 9 3 75%
Total 28 13 68%

What have I learned?  

  • Sections 2 and 4 have the most lecture attendees. 
  • Sections 3 and 4 are the most confidant.
  • 68% over all confidence level is disappointing. 
It will be interesting to compare this with the results of the lab final by the end of next week.  Since the intent of the lab final is that everyone get’s 100%.

Which Exercise was the

biggest waste of time?

most valuable?

Exercise # Votes Exercise # Votes
Measurement 9 Base 19
Base 4 Cylinder 3
Engraving 3 Engraving 2
Deflection 3 Choke 2
Turning Experiment 2 Part Probing 2
Choke 1 Deflection 1
Part Probing 1 Tool Probing 1
Loading NC Code 1 Lathe Exercises 1

What have I learned?  

I suppose I’m not really surprised by the results.  We’ve known that we need to do something about the measurement lab, and we hadn’t started to talk about measurement in class when this question was asked so there was really no tie in to the lectures and I think it takes too long.  I think we can teach some important concepts in this exercise but we aren’t really doing a good job of it yet.

On the value added side I was really fishing. I didn’t really have a candidate in mind.  Based on the specific comments written on the cards it makes sense that the base was the big winner.  I’m assuming that it was the combination of cam and machining that went together and the fact that the students had to apply the things they’ve already learned that made it popular.

Watch the video at

Not Your Dad’s Manufacturing

Over the summer we had a summer camp for 7th and 8th graders.  The idea was to see if we could get younger kids excited about the technology of manufacturing so when they are making choices later in life they might consider training and careers in manufacturing.

I wrote an article about it for the experience Next Generation Manufacturer News Letter

The camp by all accounts was a big hit and we are hoping to do a series of these kind of camps next summer.

Eliminate a Lecture

For several years now I’ve been using surveys of the class for various reasons but mainly to get some feedback from the class but also to better understand if some teaching techniques were working or not without holding the student’s grades hostage while I try new things.
This term I’ve added a twist by handing out notecards at the beginning of class and asking for feedback directly.  I’m trying to understand how to best use this information and feedback to the class based on my reactions to the things they’ve said.
I think the best feedback I can give to the class is by reading the cards and commenting on video. So to watch the video click on the card above.
A quick summary is below: (remember these are votes to eliminate)
“Business stuff” 12 votes
Chip Thickness 10 votes
Art To Part 4 votes
NC Code 4 votes
I’m not currently thinking about eliminating any topics, but I may adjust emphasis or presentation of some of these topics.

first lecture of the term

Thanks for today if you were in class.  I love the beginning of the school year.  I’m excited, and the students are excited.

Discussion forum

I just finished reviewing the discussion board and answering questions.

  1. The link to the safety quiz is fixed
  2. There was question about the Haas Mill Safety manual, the correct link is: 
  3. simply forwards you to you will need to use your WPI username and password to access the page.


On reviewing the class capture I noticed there were a few things I think I missed

  • SharePoint site (lab instructions and reference)
I seem to have forgotten to explain that the SharePoint site that you can access by typing houses all of the lab instructions and the forms for the WDT lists. It is a WPI server and requires that you log in with your wpi credentials.  If you are on a computer logged into the WPI ADMIN domain you will be able to access the site without logging in again.
Please note that all of the quizzes including quizzes are on the myWPI page and all of the lab instructions and reference materials are on the SharePoint site.