Northwest Pennsylvania’s Oil Region has a long history in manufacturing. Many of the widgets that made oil extraction and processing possible were invented and first manufactured in Venango and Crawford Counties. You would not know this unless you tour the Drake Well Museum (once it re-opens for visitors) or strike up a conversation with a history buff during this week’s Oil Heritage Festival here in Oil City. The 42nd Annual Festival has been curtailed by the coronavirus restrictions. We are rather sparsely populated these days, so there will be no parade or large public gatherings.
At its peak, Oil City was home to almost 30,000 people, thanks to THREE Fortune 500 corporate headquarters (Pennzoil, Wolf’s Head, and Quaker State) and the largest manufacturer of oil field equipment in the world (USS Oil Well Supply.) The world’s first maker of steel tubing (Webco) is still here, along with many small manufacturing operations. They still pump oil from this place, including the McClintock Well that has been flowing since 1961, but the crude goes elsewhere for refining. The last local refinery closed 30 years ago.
That is a long introduction for today’s topic. While driving down Highway 8 the other day, my much better half saw a sign for “Experienced Machinists” and asked if the “problem” was the “experience” or the “machinist.” We had watched 4th of July fireworks from the Vo Tech school parking lot on the hill above our house, and I had commented on the various programs offered there. Were the graduates not “experienced” enough for the local shops? Or were there just too few people around who were qualified to operate machine tools?
This is not as simple a question as you might think. Many people seem to think you can learn any skill “good enough” by watching a few videos on the internet. My wonderful editor recently sent me a link to one showing a twelve-year-old girl programing a tool- changing robot; is this a harbinger of video game-trained youngsters revolutionizing the trade by remotely operating machines from the comfort of their homes?
In my mind, there is a huge gap between being a “machine operator” and an “experienced machinist.” My spouse’s question reminded me of the disastrous decision a new shop manager made to assign inexperienced operators to a new $3 million CNC hobber turning $25,000 forgings into double helical gears. Yes, it was a long cycle time and the machine made all the important moves. Unfortunately, $625,000 worth of scrap gears had to be created before the need for a savvier hand at the controls was finally recognized. The “new” guy was bored with the assignment, but the “non-conforming material” pile stopped growing because of his timely intervention when the sound or vibration first started to change.
Don’t get me wrong — I fully support the Vo Tech School. It is just that diplomas and certifications do not magically make the recipient an experienced practitioner. Experience — like history — takes time to develop. Hopefully, the right person will see that help wanted sign and a need will be filled.