Thursday, July 25, 2013

I went to college for this?

This summer I am a car farmer.

My son is the inventory manager for a local auto recycling yard.  Cars run in the family, and the family has been peripherals of this yard for the 3+ decades of our marriage.  I usually teach summers at the community college, but for a variety of reasons decided I would become a car farmer instead.

My job is in support of inventory management.  Every one of the 200,000 or so parts, from whole cars to a taillight, need to be located and tagged.  When that happens, the front desk can tell customers on the phone, on the web, or standing in front of them if we have the part and how soon we can retrieve it for them.  Sometimes it has to come off of a wrecked car.  Sometimes we can walk out to a shelf and bring it back immediately.

But when things aren’t where we expect to find them we generate frustration at the front desk, unhappy sales people, unhappy customers, distrust, and a poor reputation. Knowing where everything is and being able to lay hands on it in minutes means we can make money faster.  A strong reputation for being able to provide the correct part in the shortest possible time will bring back customers and these customers will bring in additional customers.

It is my job to locate every part and get a bar code tag on every single part.  In addition to the 13+ acres of cars (about 3,000 wrecked cars in the yard) there are about 4 more acres of storage containers and warehouses, some with 2 floors, others with 20’ tall ceilings, that are filled with motors, transmissions, doors, hoods, lights, mirrors, wheels, radiators, flywheels, etc.  Car parts.  

It’s not as easy as it looks!  Some Corvette wheels have left hand patterns or right hand patterns.  It matters whether it’s a left wheel or a right wheel, and the correct tag must be applied!  Sometimes there are three similar wheels, one with minor damage.  That wheel is worth less than the other two.  The correct tag must be attached to that wheel.  A customer may not want to pay for the perfect wheel and may be happy with one with minor scratches.  Let’s pretend we make a mistake and send that customer away with a perfect wheel but for the damaged price.  Later, someone comes in wanting two wheels of similar wear, but when we bring the wheels to the front counter one clearly has damage.  We may lose the sale altogether because the wheels do not look similar enough, or we will have to reduce the price for the mismatched pair.  But the yard is out of the money for one perfect wheel.

Perhaps you feel like a big establishment can eat such errors.  Let’s look at it another way.

There are about 60 people who work for this yard.  The efficiency of the yard most certainly depends on the inventory management.  The yard cannot make money when they can’t sell a part they have.  The correct inventory, properly located and tagged, means the yard is making the most money as quickly as customers arrive.  This money pays those 60 people, most of whom have families to feed, homes and vehicles with payments, children with dreams of college, and occasionally a nice vacation.  These owners are good people, who are happy to give raises when merited and the money is in good supply.  The possibility of this happening is greater when parts are available to be sold.  My job benefits every one of those 60 people.  My job also benefits the owners, who can find the best people to work for them in a well-run establishment.  Good workers who are unhappy move on.

Did I need a college education for this job?  Probably not.  But here are some job skills that my job requires.

Attention to detail.  Tags designating a right side door and a left side door can get mixed up.  I may have to have R and L tattooed on the proper hand!

Accuracy.  The first couple of days I was given the ‘easy’ job of comparing cars in the yard with a list of what was in the yard.  I’m a math teacher, and I felt the numbers would be easy.  But numerical labels are NOT numbers!  For a couple of days I thought I had early-onset Alzheimer’s.  My son was also a little concerned with the errors.  Once he showed me the data entry, however, things clicked.  I began to see the patterns that had meaning that were embedded in the stock numbers on each car, and why they were important.

Persistence.  Every part needs a tag.  Every single part, no exceptions. I cannot walk away from a mess of parts because the pile is too big or ugly.  It must be sorted out and every single piece identified.

Logic.  There might be four tags in my hand, but only three items.  Which one isn’t here?  Where is it?  Why?  How can the descriptions in the database help me decide which tag goes with which item?  Sometimes a location number shows a B instead of an 8.  Is it a different location or was there a readability error?

Willingness to be educated and learn new things.  I’m not afraid to learn new computer skills, but I dislike asking someone three times how to do the same thing.  Fortunately, everyone in the yard knows that I am there to help with their job security.  No one has lost patience with me yet.  Yet.

Inventiveness.  My smartphone has a ton of good tricks.  A chunk of database can be transferred to a spreadsheet that I can carry in my hand.  As I'm climbing over and around things in the yard, having my hands free of clipboards and pens is really important.  Being able to search the spreadsheet for a stock number can help locate an item not in the proper place, and make it available for those who need to find it.  Its photo capabilities mean that I can take or send data to someone who can interpret it, without making them leave what they’re doing and walk to my location.

A sense of order, pattern, and travel.  I am free to change the location of items, making them easier to reach or manipulate.  Sets of wheels shouldn’t go on the top shelf where a ladder is required to reach them.  It becomes enormously difficult to audit the inventory when things are not easily reached.  Each wheel has its own tag, and the barcode scanner needs to see every single tag.  Location changes must be reported, so that the front desk can find things!

Some knowledge of the field.  Anyone willing to learn could be trained to do this, but it goes much faster and more accurately when you can recognize the difference between a bumper cover and a fender.

Some knowledge of other fields.  A pretty flower out in the yard turns out to be a noxious weed.  I recognized it, and have alerted people to just pull it up when they see it.

Some physical strength, agility, and balance.  I am climbing over and under many irregular things, stretching to write numbers in a visible place, standing on tiptoe, crouching low, climbing on racks to reach things, lifting wheels down off of and up to shelves, pulling awkwardly shaped and balanced parts out to find numbers and tags without inflicting damage to either myself or the part, and avoiding wasps and sunburn.

Attention to safety.  The job rather ends if I slip in a puddle of grease and break a knee, or stab myself in the face with a twisted piece of scrap metal.  It’s very easy to get fingers pinched or skin scraped or to trip over something.  We all know this and take action to prevent this, but EVERYONE must do so.

Kindness for people who assist me, thankfulness that my coworkers are ALWAYS willing to help, feedback when someone has been helpful or done an exceptional job, an ear and an eye to look out for someone in difficulty or having trouble with a task.

Willingness to clean up after myself AND others.  There’s a lot of debris floating around a wrecking yard.  When I started, I hadn’t generated any of it.  But cleanliness applies even here, and everyone has to take ownership, even if they didn’t create the mess.  You’ll be happy to hear that our waste and runoff water collection ponds are currently full of tadpoles.

How does this all relate to education?

After just a few weeks on the job I've come up with some games and tasks that might help kids sort and categorize.  Understanding how the world works and being able to communicate what you know is largely about describing categories and sorting.  Sometimes one is easier than the other.  But this is wealth-generating stuff, whether or not you go to college.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

WHY college at age 18, when most aren't ready?

I was reflecting on a conversation with another parent I had recently about a 21 year old child of theirs who is struggling at the community college level.  We talked about all of my little soapboxes:

  • Most 18 year olds should not be in college.  They SHOULD be getting some life experience, seeing the world, traveling, gathering up experiences that will enrich their later college experience.
  • A lot of brain maturity happens for a lot of people between 20 and 25.
  • We expect college behaviors of high schoolers, many of whom aren't ready for it.  
  • Kids should have some work experience.
  • The possibility of the tech college as a stepping stone to further education.
  • Students not successful in the academic setting should back off until they get a plan and a focus, and are ready to burst walls to make it happen.  
  • A good track record opens doors, a poor one can cost more money in the long haul.
  • Rocket science is often open to older students who couldn't do algebra at any time in high school.
And then I got to wondering, Why do we insist that all 18 year olds go to college?  It certainly isn't because of their guaranteed success there.  Only a fraction of the population ever attends.  Half of all who start never finish.

Why do we dangle college as the holy grail?

The answer is: To finish the student's indoctrination.  Their success in a field of study isn't important.

The indoctrination happens in an environment where the instructor is forbidden to speak to the parent, in the introductory courses in communications (literature, writing, speech), science, and the humanities, where students are told that capitalism is a bad thing, that government holds all the answers, that the working conditions of anyone who works is terrible, that humans are no more than a slightly glorified animal, that experiencing sexuality is a wonderful thing at any time and under all conditions, that one doesn't have to take responsibility for the babies made but that we should probably try to avoid certain diseases, that humans are a scourge upon the earth, anyway.

What better way to convey all of these things to the young mind!  They are separated from parents and families, grouped with friends under the same instruction, allowed and to some degree encouraged access to behavior-altering drugs, and given free rein and encouragement to try behaviors which their parents would not approve.