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Madison Heights

November 7, 2012

Shop teacher focuses on real-world skills

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

MADISON HEIGHTS — The concern about America losing its competitive edge on the world stage often rears its head in talks about education. Talk to an industrial business like Ka-Wood Gear & Machine Co. in Madison Heights and you’ll see why.

Finding employees with basic math skills has been difficult, according to Joe Kloka, third-generation owner of the family business that serves clients in automotive, aerospace, mining and machining.

“We’re looking for very basic math,” Kloka said. “Gears are complicated math-wise, but we don’t do production here; there’s a continual setup of parts involving simple ratios, basic sizes with gears, pitch diameters. There are formulas, but you need to know when something is wrong. We use calculators and computers, but you need to know when you push the button that something doesn’t make sense.

“I’m talking like sixth-grade math,” he said. “In the office, we get more complicated, using trigonometry and whatnot, but I’m looking at really basic math. We had some college guys come in and they didn’t get it.”

An example problem he gave is if a piece of clothing costs $36 normally and is 25 percent off, how much does it cost? Some of his job candidates struggle with such problems; they have decent grades in math but then completely flunk a simple test.

The son of an employee at Ka-Wood was one such case, though Kloka liked his attitude and arranged for a retired math teacher friend to help him out. At least a dozen others were turned down because of their lacking basic math skills.

Kloka said it’s frustrating, and he’s not the only one feeling it; many of the vendors who handle Ka-Wood’s machining have expressed similar frustrations finding people who work with numbers.

“They’re looking for people who have skills running machines like lathes, mills, and specifically CNC (computer numerical control),” Kloka said. “They’re looking for people who have some training and skill level in that” and the math skill that goes with it. 

Todd Losey, the metal and wood shop teacher at Lamphere High, has been talking to local manufacturers about the skills they want in potential hires, and he has been trying to incorporate those skills into the school curriculum.

“You’re not building birdhouses, you’re building machining parts designed on computers,” Losey said. “Right now, our engineering lab is separate from our shop, which is how it was in society for a while.” But integration, he said, is needed.

“I want students to see a product over the entire course of its life cycle,” Losey said. “The way the old instruction went (in engineering) is you got really good at drawing parts and drew a lot of them. The other side (in shop) was, ‘This is a drill press, this is how you use it,’ and, ‘This is a milling machine, this is how you use it,’ rather than thinking about what part will solve the problem, and figuring out how to make it, test it and improve it.”

Losey has been training his students in CAD (computer aided design), CAM (computer aided machining) and CNC. Larger companies like the Big Three auto companies utilize CAD-to-CAM pipelines, designing the parts in CAD and translating them to the G-code the factory uses in CAM. Smaller companies skip straight to CNC, which streamlines the process.

Losey wants his students to have experience with all of them. It’s not enough to have the basic math skills, he said. They must also know what to do with them.

“And the scale doesn’t matter,” Losey said. “The small tabletop router we have in the classroom has CNC control and uses G-code, and it’s the same as a quarter-million-dollar machine that’s the size of a bedroom, in that they all run on the same language. If you understand one, you understand them all. And we need to show the kids it’s relevant.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.