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You Can Never Have Enough Education

June/May - 2009
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One of the things that has captivated me the most in the Metal Finishing industry is the simple fact that one can never know everything. It doesn’t matter how much I think I've learned - every time I turn around something new or unusual sparks my curiosity.  I get reminders daily to this effect; just this past week I learned that it is both practical and possible to provide first class decorative show chrome, using a trivalent chrome bath, in a close loop environment (and still offer a warranty!). But that’s a whole other story, and a whole other editorial.

This insatiable thirst for knowledge and an unending stock of information has lead me to do work in the industrial education sector.  For years I’ve had to repeatedly explain myself and my motives to certain members of the board and NASF headquarters. First, regarding this publication, then the Southern Metal Finishing Conference, and finally my involvement with the Surface Finishing Academy. Some are convinced that another company offering training in the metal finishing industry could be a detractor from their own programs. My response to those of this mindset has always been simple -“There can never be enough education in the metal finishing industry.”

The first time this concept hit home for me was during my address to the delegates back at Sur-Fin after being nominated as candidate for President of AESF by the Chicago Branch. It wasn't until shortly after giving the address I realized that a good eighty percent of the 300+ delegates in the audience had one foot in retirement; and I am sad to report that nearly a dozen of those people have now passed on and are no longer with us.

Struck by these humbling observations, it’s not difficult to connect the dots between the aging metal finishing population and lack of knowledge or continued education, to the inability to produce products, and how the concept of competition quickly becomes a moot point under these circumstances. To me, this all adds up to a threat that is much greater than the notion of “foreign competition”.

To date in the US there are very few opportunities for training in the multitude of disciplines that comprise the very heart and soul of the metal finishing industry. On the organic side of the issue, the Powder Coating Institute (PCI) has a longstanding track record of offering quality, on-site cooperative training opportunities to its membership for the practical applications of powder coating. There is also the relative newcomer to this area of training, the Surface Finishing Academy, with their well respected Powder Coating program instructed by Tiger Drylac, that travels around the country throughout the year bringing their course directly to students around the US. On the plating side of finishing, the AESF offers the widest selection of quality courses, covering a variety of finishing disciplines. They also offer some top notch courses on waste water treatment and pollution prevention. While not necessarily targeted to the shop floor, AESF’s courses are accredited with a “CEF” designation, which has 6 levels. In addition to these key processes, you can also find a few workshops and courses offered by the Surface Finishing Academy on other related topics such as the MFN Shot Peen and Blasting, Hardcoat, and Basic Anodizing and Electroplating. Outside of these institutions there are a few other opportunities to learn from various organizations, individuals, and companies, but they are even harder to find than those mentioned above.

An alarming number of the individuals who have acquired very specialized knowledge in our industry are slowly but surely retiring and moving on, and only a handful of people I’ve met even recognize this. A rare exception, however, is George Cushnie of CAI Resources, who gave a well received presentation last year to the DOD where he explained that the expected loss of expertise due to retirement in the plating industry over the next five years is a whopping fifty percent! George gets it, and it would seem that the DOD gets it...so why then do precious few others in the surface finishing industry of the US actually get the meaning of this?

On the upside, I'm pleased to say that the Surface Finishing Academy and the organizers of Sur-Fin (the NASF and AESF) have collaborated this year. The SFA will host it’s first Powder Coating Workshop ever held at Sur-Fin. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a full, two day workshop on Powder Coating has ever been offered at the conference, and I have to take my hat off and say Kudos to NASF and AESF for their openness and willingness to work towards a common goal. This is certainly a step in the right direction.
But the time to take action is quickly running out. It's not just about formalized training, either - no one training firm can handle this task.  We must all begin to take an active role in the transfer of this knowledge, by any means possible. Make the time to learn from the 'old timers' in your shop or your customers' shops, or sign up for a course offered by the NASF, SFA, PCI, or any beneficial training opportunities that may cross your path. Embrace these programs, and attend any that you can. You’ll find that many of them have scholarship, incentive, and discount programs that can work to your advantage.

A strong foundation in the core principals of our industry is a necessary prerequisite for continuing education, so whether you decide to brush up on your knowledge via formal training, or simply by matching wits with your wise and knowledgeable elders, make sure you have a sturdy base to build upon. And perhaps instead of "out with the old, in with the new" a better philosophy for our industry to follow would be "learn from the old, apply to the new"... and make sure to do so before it's too late!