Quality Scan: O Metrologist, Where Art Thou?
The first of the 76-million Baby Boomers are starting to reach retirement age, and the impact of this development will be felt in many ways across our economy over the next two decades.
One question on the lips of many is: "Who will replace all these workers when they retire?" This question and the associated realities are particularly acute in the world of US-based manufacturing. The ranks of professionals in the dimensional metrology specialty are no exception. A quick look around the room at this year's Coordinate Metrology Systems Conference (CMSC), and you can see the writing on the wall. Made up of many of the aerospace industry's "power users," the CMSC's experience base is impressive, and much of that experience is getting ready to retire within a decade or two. A common refrain among the CMSC membership has been how difficult it is to find qualified help, and how few young people are getting into the profession.
What to do? Where will the next generation of metrologists come from? Don't look to the government for help on that one. The government agency that measures occupational statistics won't even recognize measuring as an occupation. That's right—it has been reported that the US Department of Labor has rejected a petition to include "Metrologist," "Calibration Engineer," and "Calibration Technician" as job titles in the proposed 2010 Standard Occupational Classification system (SOC).
Used as the basis for the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which is used by educators and counselors to inform students about potential careers, the SOC is updated only once every 10 years, the last revision being published in 2000. The Department of Labor's rationale was simply: "The three occupations that you propose were not accepted at the workgroup level, and the SOC Policy Committee accepted the workgroup's decision. This was in part because of concerns that Census and BLS would not be able to collect and report data on those occupations."
In light of the fact that today's metrology professionals have no true place in the SOC at all, it's particularly mystifying that the petition to add metrology descriptions has been rejected. Search the term "Quality" and you find nothing, "Calibration," nothing, "Inspector" yields jobs in agriculture, transportation, construction, and an odd category in "Other Production" called "Inspectors,Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers."
In fact, the only real option to classify a metrology professional within the most relevant major group, "Metal Workers and Plastic Workers," is "Lay-out Workers, Metal and Plastic"—a listing that will be helpfully revised in 2010 to remove the hyphen between "lay" and "out." Ironically, the highly experienced folks we were just talking about who are getting ready to retire were probably once described by this job title—when inspections were done with a surface plate and a paper blueprint. How far the world of dimensional measurement has come since then.
You see, whole careers worth of valuable knowledge and experience just isn't being transferred to the next generation. This is a field where, for all the somewhat facetious talk of metrology being a "black art," there is some truth to the statement.There are often many ways to measure something, but there are also good and bad techniques. New entrants in the metrology field might have good computer skills, and an understanding of CAD, but they are often lacking a fundamental understanding of the basics of how to measure—of good technique, best practices, and wise choices. There can also be a mutual distrust between potential mentors and students—"he thinks he already knows it all" versus "what does that guy think he can teach me?"
What can we do as an industry? As companies, we can get involved with our local technical colleges and ask them to deliver graduates to the market that have skills our companies can use. As an example, our company's Metrology division in Rhode Island has partnered with New England Tech to supply not only software and equipment for students to learn with, but also experienced staff to help teach them real-world metrology. In this challenging time for America's manufacturing sector, there will be many people looking for a new set of skills. It's our job to show them that the metrology specialty is a great place to be. Metrologists help make the world a better place by ensuring that our factories turn out quality manufactured products that we can all be proud to call "Made in the USA."
This article was first published in the January 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.