Factory workers, once valued for their brawn, increasingly are expected to tackle cerebral problem-solving while chip-driven machines do the heavy lifting.
“No longer do I need someone trained in the actual physical task of making something happen,” said Maureen Steinwall, president and chief executive officer of Steinwall Inc., a plastics molder in Coon Rapids. “I need someone to think through the process of how things get made.”
Steinwall compares the manufacturing process to baking a cake. “A robot is making the cake now, and the challenge for our workers is to decide why is that egg needed and does it matter. . . . We are having to understand at a different level why the recipe is the way it is on the job.”
Worker frustration over emerging technology isn’t new. Ned Ludd struck a chord in English workers in 1779 when he destroyed machines used for knitting hosiery to protest workplace conditions of the early industrial era. Mary Shelley and other writers picked up on the spirit of the movement. The monster in Shelley’s 1818 novel expressed its essence when he told Dr. Victor Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master.”
It would be easy to dismiss as neo-Luddites today’s workers who fail to adapt to new technology. But the example of auto care shows that their problems are everyone’s problem.
Cars run longer today than ever before, thanks to microprocessors that govern the fuel mix, dashboard displays and other functions. With fewer mechanical parts to break, it isn’t unusual to see cars humming smoothly after 150,000 miles.
But when something does go haywire, it can involve maddening delays and costly fishing expeditions. Auto-related problems rank among the top complaints that consumers register with the Minnesota attorney general’s office, said Eric Swanson, former head of consumer-affairs operations at the office.
“The advances in technology have made it even harder for consumers to understand the problems and be more of a participant in the repair decisions,” Swanson said.
The frustration isn’t new. Under a siege of consumer complaints, the National Association of Attorneys General investigated the repair industry and concluded in a 1995 report that a lack of competent technicians is a major problem for consumers, who spend more than $75 billion a year on vehicle repairs.
“A technician may lack the training or equipment to make an accurate diagnosis and [may], therefore, engage in what is described as ‘diagnosis through replacement’ — progressively replacing parts until the defective part is located,” the report said.
The attorneys general and other critics also have alleged fraud in repair shops. But S. Mark Warren, president of the Service Technicians Society, which represents auto service workers in 50 states, insists that the problem is failure to keep pace with technology, not fraud.
“I see very little fraud,” Warren said. “I hate to use the word ‘incompetence,’ but I see lack of training. . . . The implication for consumers is longer waiting times, but in addition to that it is money wasted on improper diagnostics.”
Economists attach even greater costs to the skills gap.
What’s largely at stake, they say, is the ability of Americans to compete with masses of workers in low-wage countries. Armed with technology, American workers can take home more money and still make products cheaper and quicker, said Med Chottepanda, chief work-force economist at the Minnesota Department of Economic Security.
“It’s one reason we can beat the rest of the world even while our wages are increasing,” he said.
But as workers in other countries become increasingly sophisticated and competitive, we in the United States must employ our technological advantage even more.
“One way that we improve workers’ productivity is by providing them with more complicated machines that can perform more rapidly,” said Stinson, the state economist. “But workers have got to know how to operate those machines to take advantage of them. And they’ve got to know how to repair those machines when they fail.”
Across the gap
Auto technicians who have crossed the gap say that the rewards go beyond money. The work absorbs them and delivers the special satisfaction that comes from solving complex problems.
Dave Urspringer, of Maple Grove, drove a real intellectual challenge into Anoka Auto Care when his 1988 LeSabre Custom started backfiring just after he filled it with gas and the “service engine” light flashed on. Pat Andersen, owner of the three-technician shop, determined quickly that the exhaust-gas-recirculation valve was stuck open. But why?
First, Andersen tried a low-tech fix: He blew into the valve and cleaned it. The valve closed, but the car still idled wrong. He hooked a scanner to the car’s computer network, and it shot back a “code 44,” suggesting that the engine was getting too much air and not enough fuel. Again, why?
Andersen checked the ignition system with a digital scope. Normal. He then measured the alcohol concentration in the gas. Normal.
By this time, Urspringer was calling his LeSabre “the patient.”
Andersen started to doubt the electronic diagnostic signals because the sensor that measures air flow was caked with soot, meaning it could be sending the wrong calculations to the car’s computers.
“If only the car could talk,” Urspringer said.
“Some of the newer ones can,” Andersen reminded him.
Switching back to his mechanical mode, Andersen started looking for hard-to-see vacuum leaks. Aha! He found a hose that had lost its grip on a valve, allowing too much air into the engine.
In the end, the problem was mechanical, but finding it was no simple mechanical task.
“There was a simple solution for a complicated problem,” Andersen said. “It’s just not easy to see what’s wrong in these cars.”
Andersen’s goal was a degree in engineering when he went to North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park in the early 1980s. But nothing in the calculus books fascinated him as much as the puzzles he found under hoods.
“Fixing cars was a passion,” he said. “I couldn’t leave it.”
He studied at North Hennepin Technical Center and worked for several shops before he opened Anoka Auto Care.
Andersen and other workers who have leaped the skills gap have some unconventional ideas about upgrading skills. Many of these experts on the front lines debunk assumptions that are held nearly sacred in the 1990s.
One is that schools should stress computer training. Computers in schools are fine. But change is rolling so fast, Andersen said, that specific skills will be outdated by the time the students get a job. Except for college-level training in higher computer sciences, he said, schools still should concentrate on the basics, especially communications, math and science.
“If workers have all of those basic building blocks in place, you can teach them computers in a matter of months,” he said. “If schools are teaching computers instead of all of this other stuff, then students will not be able to make the changes they will face at work.”
Many experts who think like Andersen also challenge the value of a college education, arguing that a cultural mandate for bright students to go to college distorts the job market, pushing people toward careers that already are overfilled.
“When I told my parents that I was going to quit the University of Arizona and open an auto repair business, I cannot express to you the disappointment that they suffered,” said Warren, of the Service Technicians Society.
“The industry has been very good to me, and they are now pleased by the decision, but at the time it was like announcing a death sentence,” he said.
On one point, though, the experts do take a conventional line: Perpetual training is critical to success. Andersen takes at least 40 hours of training a year and pays in time and tuition for his employees to do the same.
He offers this advice for workers facing new technology: “Maybe they should just forget about the fear and get into it.”