Thursday, May 14, 2009

the battle to save the shop around the corner

“Let’s take a better look/Beyond our storybook/And learn our souls are all we own/Before we turn to stone…” ‘Turn to Stone’ - Ingrid Michaelson

There are those who live for what they do. And they know nothing but. And now, in a time of such economical and cultural change, we realize that sometimes, we have to be able to expand ourselves, our skills. We have to be able to be diversified. Still, there is a mourning in this shift, which is shaking the futures of Americans in industrial shops across the country.

I have written before about the soft spot I have for industry. The small mom and pop machine shops where mornings consist of thermoses of coffee, uniforms with names embroidered over where the heart lies not far underneath, beating with the hum of large, bulky, various machines.

My affection for this integral part of our country’s heritage has only strengthened since last I wrote about it. Because we have something in common those industrial, tool and die, machine shops and me. Both of the mediums in which we work are in serious danger of becoming obsolete.

I think as a country, we all thought bailout money would bail us out. The big auto dealers would turn around with brand new cars we would have never thought they would come up with. And we would all want to buy them. And the money would just appear in our pockets. And the lines would run again.

And thanks to those lines, the rest of the world of industry would pick up. People would be all about building things and making things and developing things and it would all consist of heavy machinery and construction and manual labor. And parking lots would be full. And families would be secure. And our engineers, machinists, welders, etc. would not be facing the threat of their own extinction. But things haven’t turned out that way.

The all too recent example is 450 lives that hang in the balance of Tyler Refrigeration. Elsewhere, industrial parks sit all but abandoned. Plants have gone dark.

The New York Times recently went to Grafton, Wis., to sit in on a layoff at a family owned tool and die manufacturing company in which the vice president of administration, with the final list of those who would have to go, sank into tears after she had informed them all of the unfortunate news. The Washington Post took a look at areas such as Michigan, which had once thrived off of an auto industry that has all but gone away, searching for industries that might put people back to work in the future. Healthcare. Green jobs. But the future's classification stings. “Uncertain.” At, almost every moment of this struggle is chronicled with updates, stories of businesses across the country and links to resources within the industry.

I can appreciate community colleges that are reaching out to help those shop workers who may find themselves in need of “retooling”... But I am sincerely afraid to lose our industry. Because the fact of the matter is, if we lose our industry – we will have turned our backs on our own legacy. We will have built a history on the backs of our grandfathers and our fathers, who know this crazy world of steel and sweat better than we could ever hope to learn from history books, only to tear it down without so much as a Plan B. We have to save the shop around the corner because our grandfathers and fathers don’t have a Plan B.

Many small businesses, tool and die, CNC, precision machining, are looking for help in order to survive. Yet as a country, we don’t have so much as a method of CPR. Loans are tough to accept as a resolution when you’re struggling to keep employees. And if you’re looking for any help beyond that – coming from someone who has seen the frustration of many trying to do just that – good luck.

We have to save the shop around the corner – because it means starting with the big businesses uptown. Those who would have us all believe that the future of innovation couldn’t possibly gain anything from wearing a blue collar. It means pooling our most valuable resources, the men and women of the line and taking another look at what this country can do to build itself back up again. It would mean building a future workforce that can benefit from the teachings of the old school and the capabilities of the new school. It would mean enticing entrepreneurs to find new ideas that could put men and women back to work.

Because it can't all be that bad. It can't be that this is how their story ends. It means thinking hard, lending a hand, taking a chance on a new idea. We should save the shop around the corner because it would mean looking at our priorities. Priorities are goals for the future and truly inventive ideas. Stop-gaps are not truly inventive ideas.

Most of all – we should save the shop around the corner because it’s about the ideals. Those ideals are what built our railroads, mined our coal, generated our power, laid our brick, built our cars, our homes…our past. Our present. That our best asset is our hands, our minds and the ability to use them both at the same time. We have to save the shop around the corner – because if we don’t – what will be the next thing to go? Will our work ethic evaporate like fine dust that sloughs off metal shavings only to settle corners of the shops that now sit empty, nothing but natural light and shadows and locked doors. Will we no longer feel the need for inventiveness? Will we lose our convictions?

We have to keep looking for solutions. We have to keep asking for help. Put in the hours. Burn the midnight oil. It sounds so incredibly melodramatic, I know.

So how about this…we have to save the shop around the corner, because if we don’t, we will have a hard time meeting our neighbor’s eye when we pass them on the street. And because when our shops shut down – the silence will be deafening.

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