Little Hands Build Big Dreams

by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
January 2010

If you’re a robotics enthusiast, you don’t need to be convinced of the importance of developing mechanical skills, including a hands-on familiarity with various materials, hardware components, and assembly techniques. In robotics, fluency in basic programming and mechanical engineering principles is necessary but insufficient to design and develop anything new.

Consider that robotic control algorithms that work on simulated robots often don’t run on the real thing because of real-world issues such as friction, imperfect motor startup characteristics, and other factors not typically represented in the simulation — that is, unless the programmer has experience with the real thing. In robotics, there’s no substitute for a physical platform to build on and test real components, and to develop real world skills.

As a kid growing up in a town on the gulf coast that serviced the offshore industry, I assumed that everyone on the planet owned or had access to a metal lathe, welding machine, milling machine, and master mechanics tool set. Today, living in Boston, I happen to own a miniature milling machine and fairly extensive tool collection, but I’m certain my neighbors don’t. In fact, given that Boston is a typical college town, machining and other blue-collar skills are not highly regarded. After all, technicians and factory workers build things with their hands, engineers design things, and physicists theorize what’s possible. In short, hands-on, blue-collar skills are not what we aspire to, for ourselves or for our children.

Transition to our front cover, featuring John Ratzenberger, perhaps best known for his roles as Cliff, the postman in Cheers, and the host of the Travel Channel show John Ratzenberger’s Made in America. I had the pleasure of speaking with John about his charity organization Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs Foundation (NBT), which is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of welders, plumbers, carpenters, and others who work with their hands and minds, one tinker at a time. John is convinced that the backbone of civilization is manufacturing, and the future belongs to those who know how to use their hands.

John’s conviction stems from both firsthand knowledge and those intimately familiar with the American workforce. John worked as a journeyman carpenter throughout New England prior to becoming an actor. He started NBT about 2-1/2 years ago following his work with the Made in America show. During his travels for the show, he frequently encountered CEOs alarmed that the US is running out of people who can build and make things with their hands.

As an actor, John is attuned to the role of the general public’s attitude towards the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US. He pointed out that in movies, those who work with their hands are portrayed as geeks, but they’re really the heroes. As such, one of his goals is to improve the image of those who work with their hands to make things. And he’s going about it by taking strategic, direct action.

For example, guidance counselors often steer students away from careers in manufacturing because they perceive the jobs as low paying, with grimy work   conditions reminiscent of the factories portrayed in 1930’s movies. To confront this misperception head on, NBT took busloads of counselors on tours of manufacturing plants. They were shown that the plants are clean, that the workers make a good living, and that most have nice homes. As a result, these counselors now encourage students to consider careers that involve mechanical skills.

John’s quick to point out that more has to be done in the American educational system. For example, shop classes — once popular — are now rare. As a result, most students who finish high school are functionally illiterate when it comes to basic mechanical skills such as the ability to read a ruler. He also related a complaint that many employers have of new engineering graduates. Apparently, they often can’t build anything because they don’t know how things are made. Theoretical knowledge alone just doesn’t cut it on the shop floor. To compound the problem, there’s a shortage of engineers. According to John, American universities awarded twice as may degrees in sports management than in engineering last year. John Ratzenberger certainly has his work cut out for him, and, of course, he can’t do it alone. Fortunately, Nuts and Bolts recently merged with the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association of America, which works on multi-level platforms to promote American manufacturing, including grants and scholarships to nonprofits that provide day or overnight camps to children who want to learn the manual arts. To learn more about John and Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs, and how you too can help, log onto www.nutsandboltsfoundation.org. 

Through his charity (Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs Foundation), John has committed his resources to introducing America’s youth to the pleasures of ‘tinkering’ – getting away from their video games and TV sets and into the backyard building things. In that way, we will create the next generation of artisans, inventors, engineers, repairmen, and skilled workers — in short, a self-sufficient, self-sustaining society. John’s tag line has become “Little hands build big dreams. Give children tools and watch them build America.” 

John is an outspoken advocate for American-made products and the companies that keep Americans working. In 2007, John embarked on a yearlong commitment with the Association for American Manufacturing and US Steelworkers to create a Presidential Town Hall Tour. The Town Hall series brought attention to issues that American voters were demanding to hear about — a real commitment from presidential candidates to ensure a strong manufacturing industry. During the town hall events, John encouraged voters to ask the presidential candidates what specific policies they would enact to strengthen the American manufacturing base, which is vital to our economic and national security. 

John was invited to address Congress and its Manufacturing Caucus that same year, for which he prepared his oft-quoted speech “The Industrial Tsunami Heading Our Way.” He continues to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the American manufacturing industry has a voice in Washington.

During his free time, John is an avid sailor, fisherman, and billiard player. He enjoys international travel, fencing, and collecting antiques. He plays the drums and belongs to a bagpipe band, as part of the Emerald Society. Sports such as karate, yoga, and skeet shooting keep him active. He has one son and one daughter and lives outside of Los Angeles, but spends as much time as possible on his boat, cruising up and down the east coast.  SV


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