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'Lifelong learning' - step 1.

Back in my foundry days, there was a third-shift cupola operator who, to say the least, was a less than pleasant kind of guy. He had worked at that plant for more than 20 years and, after all that time, he had no friends at the foundry. In the two or three years that I worked with him, I don't ever recall having a real conversation with him.

So, I was shocked the night he walked up to me outside of the foreman's office and asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee. I was so surprised by the offer that I took him up on it. He handed me 30 cents and I walked over to the machine and got my coffee. When I returned to thank him, he handed me another 30 cents and asked if I would get him a cup, too. I thought this was pretty weird considering we were all of 10 feet away from the coffee machine. But I figured that since he had just bought me a cup, the least I could do was get him one. "Extra cream, no sugar," was all he said.

So, I got his coffee and gave it to him. He immediately walked away without saying anything. But a few minutes later I noticed him back at the coffee machine. When he thought no one was looking, he took something out of his pocket and marked the button I had pushed to get his coffee.

That's when it dawned on me. It was a new coffee machine with the buttons configured differently than the old one. He couldn't read. He had to figure out some way to get the kind of coffee he wanted without coming out and asking which button to push.

Two thoughts occurred to me at the time. He was illiterate but too proud to ask for help. And, secondly, that it was pretty scary thinking that this guy was operating a fairly sophisticated piece of machinery that was capable of melting as much as 50 tons of iron an hour.

With that experience and others like it, it comes as no great surprise that there is so much talk these days about the need to retrain and upgrade the skills of our work force. The fact of the matter is we've needed to do this for years. It has taken the enormous and growing pressures for quality and productivity, and the need to compete on the global level to uncover the festering problem of the declining educational system in America.

Even up to 10 or 15 years ago, we were able to ignore the problem of poor training and illiteracy in the workplace through automation and other technological improvements. For too many of our workers, our elementary and secondary schools failed in preparing them for a rapidly changing workplace. For too many others, learning came to a screeching halt the first day they passed through the factory gates.

In January 1990, Carl Weigell, chairman of Motor Castings Co., West Allis, Wisconsin, was appointed chairman of the Governor's Commission for a Quality Workforce. The group's task was to study Wisconsin's work force in conjunction with the Wisconsin Vocational Technical and Adult Education System, and to make recommendations for skill development policies in the state.

In sharing some of the findings from a survey conducted of nearly 2000 business executives, during the 96th AFS Casting Congress last month in Milwaukee, Weigell called them "chilling." Some of their findings included:

* 72% of state business executives said a lack of skilled workers frequently or occasionally hinders their ability to compete effectively or to expand their businesses.

* 92% of business leaders indicated they frequently or occasionally have a difficult time securing enough skilled workers to keep their business operating at peak efficiency.

* Nearly 50% of employers said their employees lacked appropriate basic algebra skills needed in today's workplace.

* More than 75% of employers believe employees have fair, poor or very poor writing skills. The ability to read manuals and graphs was another area where employee skill levels were rated low.

What each of these findings has in common is that they're referring to basic rudimentary skills--English, math and comprehension--and they are creating havoc with America's ability to compete.

While identifying the problems is a good first step in solving the problem, the more important question remains, What are we doing about it? A work force without these basic educational building blocks simply cannot be upgraded or trained for the more difficult challenges that lie ahead.

There is some good news on this front, though. One example, featured in this month's modern casting, shows how Robinson Foundry, Alexander City, Alabama, has introduced an intensive training program for its workers. There are others and we'll share some of those with you next month.

Retraining and upgrading our work force can be and, is to some extent, being done. But we have to do more and we have to do it now. During the next few months, we'll talk more about the subject of "Lifelong Learning." If you have anything to share with us on the subject, let us know.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:retraining and upgrading the skills of the working class
Author:Kanichi, David P.
Publication:Modern Casting
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:Handling changes spells success in the '90s.
Next Article:Taking another road pays off for R.H. Sheppard Co.

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