The Language of Factory Floors

Promotional film of an Ohio firm that supports youth robotics clubs

In the same Hamilton County, OH dubbed “America’s most addicted county”, manufacturers struggle to find qualified workers for their factories and machine shops.

Among the causes is a disconnect between our schools and the advanced language needed to fit in to a fast-paced production environment. Our factories aren’t what they were forty years ago. Even where the equipment is still basic, the language — impacted by a flood of college grads and production engineers — has evolved greatly.

To go directly to vocabulary, let’s look at some actual words. I’ll begin with an at-first-glance extreme set, words that helped me on entering adult life, and have since become ever more commonplace. This word set is taken from a Wikipedia article, on a topic much in the news lately, of interest to young people exploring the world of 2017. [If you’ve not seen SpaceX’ rockets returning to earth and landing on a sea-tossed barge, you’re missing one of the high points of our current civilization. Like the just-turned-10 iPhone before it, the Falcon 9’s represent our best and highest work. More, it is not merely metaphorically that the Falcon program reaches for the stars. ]

Critically, to our K12 discussion, the article here rates at seventh grade on a lexical score. Give it a look now: Merlin Engine. See how you fare.

Confused? Feeling stumped by a 7th-grade reading level? Perhaps it’s because of the words employed. Check them out here, in list form. It’s a forbidding list, isn’t it?

Look again. Sixty or so of these words and concepts are also found in a modern factory facility. If you’re to rise above operator on a manufacturing line, these words will avail you.

Increasingly, words like these make their way into every corner of the nation. They join words commonly known in earlier generations, words like spanner, vice-grips, auger, tap and die, cotter-key, jig, awl, C-clamp, jumper, ball-joint.

To their credit, America’s teachers have come to understand how disconnected the traditional curriculum has become for many teens. It behooves us to be a little tolerant when they talk of makerspaces and teaching teens workplace “skills”. Improving vocabularies may be core to their intentions.

How bad is the vocabulary disconnect? Hard to tell precisely, but one anecdote:

Recently I took an online vocabulary test, scoring 33,300, barely breaking the 60th percentile. The test measured no words such as those listed above, the type of words that make up the bulk of my post-secondary learning. The methodology discounts all such words as “mainly either scientific or archaic terms”; while counting these obscurities as useful potential vocabulary.

No one who looks at my background, talks with me for very long, reads my writings, and engages me in discussions of public policy, science, national security, military history, technology, law, business, ontology, or moral and natural philosophies will find me lacking in words requisite to exploring those domains.

Yet tests like this suggest I suffer from a shortage of words like oneiromancy and tatterdemalion. Though I command thousands of more useful words and concepts that such tests never touch upon.

Ed Jones at 23 redesigned one of the world’s most complex electronics systems. He now works to do the same for US high schools.