The youngest guy working with me is 55. I also subcontract to a gentleman that just turned 65 and a mid-septuagenarian that has a cool manual machine shop in his basement. I am running out of options fast, and I need an apprentice.

In our world, hiring managers often dismiss the liberal arts degree candidate because they immediately assume poor math skills. In your search for the best and brightest don’t ignore potential. I say we are missing an untapped reserve of excellent human material. It all depends on how you shape it.

The non-mathematical mind processes differently, and generally, right-brain people possess enhanced visualization skills. This is a different acuity requiring different stimuli. Tailor to that and then go old school. I will tell you what worked with me.

My degree is in history. Love the stuff. Manufacturing started as the job that became my career. Love that, too. I am a tactile, audible, and visual learner. An artist at heart, as a kid, I could draw pictures isometrically and had a good sense of scale and proportion.

I realized early there were a lot of starving artists in the world. My drawing skills transferred easily to architecture, then mechanical drawing and that then transferred to manufacturing. To my mind, engineering is a pictorial progression though time — and machine tools are a means to an end. A way to produce what I can see or draw. Five hundred years ago it would have been a hammer and chisel.

At 16, an old timer took a chance on me because he watched me replace the four-barrel carburetor on a 350 Chevy in an alley. He only asked if I liked working with my hands, not if I could solve an algebraic equation. He exposed me to things that not only interested me but taught me what I was good at, a major life lesson early. It also gave me a creative outlet.

I started as a fitter, hand scrapping the O.D. of large bronze bearings to fit in offset printing press frames and then polishing the I.D. for mating cylinder journals. I did so many it almost became therapeutic. As an exercise, or some would consider punishment, I had to file blocks perfectly square. Then there was hand tapping, de-burring, setting gaps with feeler gauges and cutting stock with a saw, etc. Oh, yeah I swept floors too.

This training taught me to focus on shape, fit and finish. Size for size, dry fit, slip or throw fit, a “feel” between right and wrong. It clicked. From there I progressed to mills, lathes, grinders and CNC. I was never “figure smart,” but much of the math came later. I saw the picture in my mind or on paper and filled in the numbers. Surrounded by shiny objects, I was hooked, 28 years and counting.

The liberal arts mind thrives on the tangible. It also responds to demonstrations, explanations and patterns. Prepare yourself and the environment, and always start with a proper safety orientation.

Post charts everywhere — decimal equivalent, tap drill sizes, materials, speeds and feeds, etc. Make lists of common shop terms, a glossary. Have calculators and visual reference material at every workbench. Buy them a machinist’s handbook and pocket guides. Let them read through a catalog and have them order tooling.

Teach them to use indicators, micrometers and calipers which are very tactile and subtle. Then height gauges, gauge pins, blocks, surface plates and optical comparators.

Then there is blueprint interpretation. Blueprints are pictographs, geometric shapes. The old timers use to call them cartoons. They are also road maps, literally right, left, etc. Remember to feed the visual, show them AutoCAD and have them study print symbols for homework; make flash cards.

Production with a machine tool is learned behavior through repetition. At first, all they see is a jungle of levers, knobs and buttons. Simplify — start with basic principles. No matter how advanced the technology controlling tool path, speeds, and feeds, you still have a work piece, something is spinning and something is cutting. Don’t fear, but respect the machine. The ancient Egyptians invented the Lathe. There’s nothing mystical about it.

Observe what they gravitate to. They will either specialize on a piece of equipment or become a sound generalist.

Got an old Bridgeport? Give them a chunk of scrap to experiment with. Teach them to know what tight in a vice is, then what sounds to listen for and to be mindful of vibration. What color are the chips? We use to call it “Breaking tool bits” and if it got dull or chipped we had to grind it. You obviously have to be careful. Monitor the progression and continually re-enforce safety and review.

You are teaching the how before the why. Save the theoretical stuff for the engineering department. With G/M code programing, first teach simple edits. Have a chart on the machine that tells what each code does — offset, right turn, left turn, etc. Then allow them to enter programs line-by-line. It’s only the Cartesian coordinate system, right? Watch for comprehension. They will get it.

If you like this kid, show him the perks of the trade; let him have “toolbox” or pet projects and apply the technology to what they can draw and dimension on paper.

If you really trust them have them make a knife, or a pair of scissors; useful ways to teach about temper and sheer. Why not let them cut the rotors on their car

Admittedly, this sounds like a quick and dirty apprenticeship. In a way, it is, but what worked for our predecessors of the greatest generation still works today. Not a crash course, but the fundamentals, and a way to register with the liberal arts mind. Plus, OJT is vastly different from school. For me, it became more the paid challenge than obligation.

Patience creates loyalty. If you inspire them, the grander concepts and depth of understanding will come later. The only trick is to make sure one thing is learned before moving on to the next, and one thing you never want is to have them stop asking questions for fear of embarrassment. The only dumb and potentially dangerous question is the one not asked.

On the other hand, don’t spare the rod. If they slack, make scrap, or get cocky, I used to send them to shipping. Have them pack boxes awhile and think about it.
Take a chance. If the worst you get out of the effort is a good machine operator, you are money ahead — someone you can give a print to, set up, and run. We use to call them “horses” pulling the wagon. They do the meat work. Besides, one good machine operator is worth two employees that think about something too much or dawdle.

I’m not saying to go find a 16 year old on the street, but ask your friends; everyone knows of a kid with a marketing degree living in his parent’s basement. Can they hold a wrench properly? Hand-eye coordination? Do they have visualization skills? Are they suitably motivated? Blank slate. I’m looking for one now.

You will know within the 90 day probationary period if they have what you need or not. You may find they have leadership or organizational abilities to develop. He may become your best employee, your trusted number two with different and interesting perspectives. Or, he may even be subcontracting to you someday. You never know.

It’s all about mentorship and you reap what you sow. Just be careful, there is an old saying, “He knows enough to be dangerous.” always keep that in mind. Good Luck!