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Guest post by Matt Gudgel of SourceOne who responded to our post about NPR’s story about the lack of people with math skills needed in manufacturing.
SourceOne feels so strongly about skilled workforce, it is included as part of their mission statement: To maintain a vibrant, skilled and dedicated work force…to use our diverse capabilities to meet challenges…and facilitate growth.

Maintaining a skilled workforce is part of the company mission. Why?  To meet challenges and facilitate growth.

Matt’s response to our post  decried the fact that “we spend too much time teaching our employees to ‘use the tools of the trade’ rather than ‘the tool five inches between the ears-‘ the ultimate tool we’re born with and have forgotten how to use.”

This is what we are really looking for…

In other words we just take it for granted that people know how to think, how to frame the problem, and to know when to use the ‘tools of the trade.’

Matt says that the challenges to manage this issue  are difficult.

  • Changing thinking from “any warm body will do” to hiring quality is one challenge we face as we continue to be squeezed on price by our customers.
  • Finding time to train people  in the face of hard deadlines for our production is another.
  • Growing people into ‘general specialists’ who can handle not just machining but also have practical knowledge of electrical and pneumatic systemsis a need, not just a want.

One challenge though,  is incumbent on our people, it is not just up to management.

“We want our employees to be well trained, and it is our responsibility to help them get trained. But employees need to step up too and master the skills.”

When looking at employees, here is Matt’s advice- “They have to fit our culture, just as much as they need to fit the position in our company. Economic competition means we need to find the right people.”

As the NPR story mentioned about basic math, (adding subtracting and dividing decimals as a lost ability among job candidates!) and as Matt Gudgel pointed out:

Finding the ‘right people’ means ” finding people who are effective at using the ultimate tool we’re born with and have forgotten how to use- the tool five inches between the ears.”


15 thoughts on “Most Important Tool Is The 5 Inches Between The Ears

  1. kfitch7275 says:

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with an HR Manager recently. He told me he couldn’t find general laborers in his factory. Most pass through the interview process very well, but when they get to the exam to measure their basic competence, they cannot divide fractions. This eliminates them from the resource pool.

    I found this amazing. Rather than buying a bunch of $3 calculators for the employees, they eliminated good workers, and threw their hands up in the air and complained the schools are no longer teaching kids what they need to know.

    Here is a quick memo, future employees are going to continue to get worse at doing basic math in their heads. Don’t plan on them being able to divide decimals in their heads (this includes Engineers!). Employers need to adapt! These future employees are going to provide tremendous value to your organization by doing exactly what you say, using the tool between their ears. They are still learning valuable things in school, college, and on the job, but they are not spending critical time rehashing how to divide fractions and decimals over and over.

    The employers that embrace this change, will find that there is plenty of high level talent out there, even if they don’t know about reciprocals and denominators.

  2. Nice post. It is a common issue to have employees that seem to forget to use their brains. Yet, it is vital to properly train a workforce to handle the day to day operations and decisions that need to be addressed. With proper training, all can be accomplished in a timely manner.

  3. The strongest department or skill a company can have is the hiring department. Getting the right person for the job is the majority of the task. The most successful companies always hire the best people for the job. Ones that think and contribute, not just punch in and punch out thinking.

  4. speakingofprecision says:

    I couldn’t agree more! But I will expand it to choosing suppliers (and customers!)too.

  5. Peter says:

    Hello, Just my thoughts… But I think some things are missed completely when ‘checking’ that applicants have the ‘right’ skills…
    I have to be honest and say, I couldnt care less if I struggle with fractions and doing stuff in my head, what’s vital is that you know whats required to get the job done right, and then Do it!.

    I will use whatever it takes to do that, also it is a double check, just to make sure.

    I understand, can and do, on a daily basis, read and digest some complex drawings, the right approach from the outset will ensure the job completes and is within limits everywhere. I have worked in a manual environment all my life and am surrounded by state of the art CNC, these tools defy belief in the things that can be done, and for me anyway, they need to be used by people who not only are PC savvy but also have a good understanding and in a sense, a love of what they do.

    Who cares if they can’t work out long hand, there’s other ways, and also leaves the space to concentrate on being creative pushing the limits and moving forward.

    Just because some may not be able to work out the maths in their heads and as a result not getting the job, just shows how blind and short sighted some managers may be.

    They ‘think’ they know, but somehow, need to learn something themselves.

    I think some of THE best workshop engineers they ever had walk through the door, have been passed over because of some blind and blinkered idea that is embedded in the past….

    Invention, creativity, and self belief will be lost as time passes, with reliance on software to give the answers.

    You need to give your staff on the shop floor the room to be creative, have access to new tooling and listen to them when they discuss a new idea.

    You may be very surprised at the talent thats lurking out there, suppressed because they cant do maths in their heads…..

    Good luck…..


  6. speakingofprecision says:

    Peter, your thoughtful approach would come through in an interview. I personally hired three gentlemen who couldn’t do the fractions but asked me for a calculator. But so many we see today don’t even think to ask that or show how they could get to an answer…
    I agree that What you guys are doing with CNC’s today is beyond belief!

  7. Actually, coming from a machine shop background, I’d rather have someone us a calculator than try to figure it out in his head. Less mistakes are likely. If a worker can give me accurate trig calculations from his head, great! But I wouldn’t count on it, and I’m gonna check his numbers anyway, because so few can actually hit those numbers to the degree of accuracy required by what we do. Knowing how to figure it with just a calculator is a pretty good talent sometimes. Then you get to the time involved. That’s going to be in favor of using that calculator in 99.9 % of people.
    The ability to think a problem through, and find the proper method to resolve it, is much more important than being a math head. That’s where the thinking on your feet comes in to play.
    Unfortunately, that ability is much harder to quantify in a job interview. It’s likely why so many people get passed over in that initial interview. That and the fact that with the unemployment numbers being so high, employers are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, looking for the perfect employee, already trained to cover the job, and likely for a lesser wage than the last guy. Can’t blame folks for wanting their cake and eating it too, but it’s no more likely to happen right now than any other time.

  8. speakingofprecision says:

    Hi Jeff. I don’t think the post was mandateing that folks do it all in their head; but rather that they should have a head that was able to use the calculator and think through problems as you stated. Regardless, without ability to do the math they are not going to be able to grow a career in advanced manufacturing…

  9. I say, go farther and fire any HR manager who cannot diagram a complex sentence, name and define the parts of a sentence, or repeat from heart at least 80% of all prepositions, explain the difference between a clause and a phrase, or the difference between an objective and a subjective pronoun, and just for the heck of it, offer a bonus point to add to his or her personnel record, if they can use a conjuctive adverb in a sentence.

  10. Your post reminds me of an episode of Taxi, when someone asked “how are we going to get to Argentina (?). Jim, the drugged out driver said, “Drive.” Someone asked, “Jim, do you know how far it is to Argentina?” Jim said, “4,623 miles.” Everyone in the room was astounded that Jim knew that answer because he always seems so “unaware” of things around him. After a moment of group buyin, someone asked, “Jim, how did you know that.” Jim looked a bit confused for a moment and then said, “Lucky guess?”

    The point is that sometimes the answer with the most apparent confidence behind it is not the correct answer.

  11. speakingofprecision says:

    I shall approve this comment; however, I do not fire HR Managers.

  12. Thank you for approving the comment. I was just making the point that most things are relative. The ability to diagram a sentence (once essential in the ability to read and write effectively) is as fundamental to the HR person as dividing fractions is to the shop worker. In reality, technology has engulfed the basics into software and made them nearly obsolete in terms of doing one’s work.

    The person who could not divide fractions really does not need to be able to do that so much as he or she needs to be creative and be a problem solver. The HR person does not need to be able to accurately punctuate a compound sentence as much as he or she needs to be a creative problem solver.

    The rule about dividing fractions (or working out math problems in our heads) sounds like a company rule that has its roots in the pre-disposable calculator days and has not been revisisted for some odd reason.

  13. speakingofprecision says:

    I was being a bit of a wise guy to show that I could use the conjunctive adverb properly. The dividing fractions / problem solver issue hits close to home. I used a very simple arithmetic question in a my interviewing back in the day to get an idea of the person’s comfort with calculations. I asked one person a pretty simple question ( actually took it from a 5th grade arithmetic book we used for home schooling our kids). He looked at me, looked at his hands now fidgeting in his lap, looked back at me and said, “Mr Free, I don’t know the answer to that question. But if you give me a piece of paper and a pencil and a calculator and some time, I think I can figure it out.” I started him that day.

  14. All of this leads to another question, and that is, what is the primary role of an engineer. Since technology has killed the abacus, the slide rule, the tape adding machine and now, in many applications, the calculator, what is the role of the engineer.

    When I first worked for Caterpillar in the mid 70’s in the Engine Division in Mossville, IL, they had a room filled with engineers and drafting tables. You could smell the brain fat rendering in that room. But somewhere another room full of engineers were working to design computers and software that would make the room full at Caterpillar obsolete – to a point. Those computers and software did, in minutes, what it would take an engineer a several days to do. Since seeing that evolution, I have often wondered what young engineers are being taught in the finest universities.

    For me, (and this is coming from a person with a degree in Radio/Television Broadcasting), I think the role of the engineer is and always has been to be a problem solver, to be creative, to create. So I can’t help but wonder how many engineers have taken creative courses in college. How many university engineering schools have recognized that technology will continue to assume the “tasks” once the domain of engineers and introduce a blend of creative courses such as creative writing or art where one has to start with a blank sheet of paper (or screen) or a blank canvass and have to create a whole -something capable of standing on its own?

    If I am behind the times on this and engineering students now have to complete a number of creative courses or if building the creative muscles in one’s mind is not necessary, please tell me.

    I look forward to your responses.

    Darryl Crum
    VIEW IT Manufacturing Communication
    DeKalb, IL

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