Subject matter experts come in all forms and fashions.
When working for an organization that has “aviation” and “missile” in its name, one would think its SMEs would be in the fields of propulsion, physics and aerospace. The Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center has many of those among its ranks. But the team also has essential personnel like machinist Jerry Durham, subject matter expert in his own right in the center’s Propulsion Test branch of the Weapons Analysis and Evaluation Division.
Durham does not just build the parts that go into Army weapons systems. Sometimes he makes the parts that make the parts. It’s a skill that is disappearing as the educational landscape changes.
“It goes back to the trade,” Durham said. “There are different specialties with the trade. There are people who do certain things within the trade I’ve never done. You can take someone and train them on how to work with propellant over time. But he has to bring that basic machine knowledge to the table. That’s not a process that starts in a few days or a week or a two-week training course.
“A lot of people would come off the farm and go to work for a company and they’d put them in their company apprenticeship program for a variety of trades. They would train and they’d go to school and get on-the-job training from the old guys that helped them along.”
Durham did just that, learning what would be his future career in a high school shop class before beginning an apprentice program. But today, Durham said that now companies want a ready-made workforce, no longer investing in their machinists because they do not expect them to be with the company for their entire career. And the trade schools today are not teaching the skills needed for the work that he does.
Durham came on board with DEVCOM AvMC in 1993 as a contractor. He was laid off during a budget crunch in the spring of 1996 but came back that fall after a six-month stint in a NASA shop. He started his career in industry at United Technologies Corp., where he worked on the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
It could be said that the Army is at a turning point as innovation becomes more of a priority. As additive manufacturing takes center stage, the role of the machinist will continue to change. But the institutional knowledge that will leave with Durham’s generation will not be easily replaced.
It hasn’t been easy work. It is the type of work that takes a toll on one’s body as Durham and his rebuilt ankle can attest. But it has been a job with a purpose – one that has made those aches and pains worth something.