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Engineers fresh off the farm

December 21, 2011

There’s an article in the Bismarck Tribune about the plethora of farm jobs in North Dakota being a good education for work later on in life. Specifically, warning against new laws that might restrict minors working on farms from certain tasks considered dangerous.

Actually, working on farm as teen was more than a job for me. Because of the nature of the work, equipment would breakdown. It seemed like we were always repairing something or other. It was a chance for a kid to learn how to make simple repairs on machinery — Internal Combustion Engine 101, Hydraulics 101, Levers and Pulleys 101. You worked with shovels, pitch forks, post hole diggers, picks, hammers, pliers. If you didn’t know it, you learned the names of the tools, and what they did.

Oddly enough, we had no vocational education programs. You either learned about machines on dad’s Ford or on the farm.

The specific calls for more hands on training from our youth, and the kind of hard labor that can instill an appreciation for starting in the mail room, is often something discussed when we talk about education in America. But just because the author (Ken Rogers) had experience on a farm as a youth doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a recent phenomenon disappearing from youth education. True, in North Dakota one might have more opportunities for this sort of thing. And there are definitely people with farm experience (though not always equipment repair). But the Greatest Generation was probably the last one to have emerged from the farm and gone to the corporate board rooms. Their younger siblings even might have had the same experience. But thanks to the GI bill, children of the Greatest Generation have been largely removed from the farm.

I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Growing up as the child of professionals certainly prepares one for college, the corporate world, networking and much of what is defined as being successful in America. We now value education higher and that also means less time for manual labor. But I was thinking about how the NASA team during the Apollo missions was much more likely to have come from farms or maybe just worked on farms than the latest crop of scientists and engineers. Could be we are more analytical now and I think there’s some advantages to the kind of stratification that would allow many scientists to work on highly theoretical topics rather than just focusing on the next revision of the widget. What’s highly theoretical now can become groundbreaking and practical technology in no time. But as an engineer, maybe there is something to the fact that we become less hands on with each generation.

My generation was more likely to take their computers apart and build their own or to program as a kid. I don’t see that so much now. I think it becomes less accessible to each generation, especially because it becomes more complicated. While kids now do build computers and do program it’s more in the way folks my age work on their cars. It has to be a hobby you are passionate about and have time to devote to otherwise it’s easier and usually cheaper to let the experts do the work for you. Still, it’s interesting to think what kind of role the small, American farm plays in the work of our scientists and engineers today and what we are losing or gaining in the balance. (Tractor via creative commons)

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