Decline in manual skills raises concerns for future work force

An expert says youths play on computers, don’t tinker on machines.

Young Americans are spending more time with electronic media and fewer hours working with their hands, according to several studies, possibly leaving them out of the running for well-paying, high-skilled jobs in the future.

Daryl Curnutte, manager of Sinclair Community College’s Step II tool and die program, has seen a decline in the hand skills of his younger students. “I have a lot of kids who come in these days that have a real hard time with simple tasks like tightening and loosening bolts or nuts,” he said.

Curnutte attributed the decline to young people not “tinkering” on cars or appliances like past generations. “They are playing Xbox and Facebook and things like that,” he said.

Jane Black, executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center, has seen a diminished emphasis on hand skills in areas such as drawing and woodworking.

“Our world moves so fast. To take the time to actually sit and draw something, I just don’t see people doing it,” she said.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children ages 8 to 18 devote an average of more than 53 hours a week to entertainment media such as watching television, playing video games or using the computer. The amount of time spent with media has increased by one hour and 17 minutes a day over the past five years, the report said.

Time spent doing hands-on activities has dropped sharply in recent years. Nearly 30 percent of teens spend zero hours per week working with their hands on projects such as woodworking or building models, according to a 2009 poll by the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturer’s Association, International.

Experts said the declining number of young people who are capable of working with their hands could create a shortage of skilled workers to replace an aging workforce in the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Some 2.7 million manufacturing employees are age 55 or older and likely to leave the labor force over the next 10 years, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Many well-paying, high-skilled jobs are currently going unfilled in the region’s aerospace and medical manufacturing industries, Curnutte said.

“To keep those industries going we’ve got to bring in young people, and they have got to be up and ready for that particular industry,” said John Boggess, superintendent of the Miami Valley Career Technology Center.

Most MVCTC students arrive with a particular interest and some basic skill set that the school helps to develop, Boggess said.

“Producing a quality welder that we have done for 40 years is different today than maybe 10, 15 years ago,” Boggess said. “That young man or woman has to have not only traditional welding skills, today they have to have an academic foundation.”

Industrial arts classes that focus on teaching young people hand skills have been eliminated by many public school districts because of budget cuts, liability issues and space constraints.

Studebaker Middle School in Huber Heights replaced its industrial arts program with computer technology classes to prepare students for 21st-century jobs that require computer literacy, said Tom Heid, the school’s principal. “We eliminated industrial arts not because we wanted to, but because we only had so much money,” he said.

The K12 Gallery for Young People in Dayton provides hands-on visual arts training for 24,000 children annually, both on site and in area schools, said Jerri Stanard, founder and executive director.

“I don’t know that I see that they are coming here with less skills, but our entire process is about creating those skills,” Stanard said. Classes teach hand-eye coordination and creative thinking skills, she said.

Stanard said she has seen her own 9-year-old son and his friends devoting more time to playing video games. As a result, she launched a “gamer’s camp” this month at K12 Gallery.

“Kids can bring their devices. They learn about different illustration components, storyboarding and how those games are visually developed,” Standard said. Video game design is a “vital career field,” she said.

Sinclair’s Step II students often require remediation for basic mechanical skills, Curnutte said. However, they are benefiting from their advanced computer and keyboarding skills, which are becoming increasingly important in high-tech manufacturing, he said.

Many machines and operations are now computer controlled, but a foundation in manual machining is still required to understand how those machines work.

“In today’s environment you not only have to be good with your brain, it helps to be good with your hands,” Curnutte said. “Having those skills is definitely an advantage.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2419 or

About the Author