The Mechanics of Things

Is it a problem that a growing number of young people don’t seem to be mechanically inclined or handy in general?

The Internet of Things will have a significant impact on our personal lives as well as how goods are manufactured. It’s certain to be embraced by young folks who have grown up in a highly interconnected, wireless world. However, should we be concerned that what I’ll dub “The Mechanics of Things” is ostensibly falling by the wayside?

There seems to be a growing number of young people who don’t understand how even basic mechanical systems work, aren’t mechanically inclined or aren’t handy in general. (Being adroit at thumbing away on a smartphone doesn’t count as handy.) Many I’ve encountered don’t know how to work with their hands all that well and/or have no interest in activities that require such skills.

There are a variety of factors contributing to this dilemma. One is that ours is a throwaway society. Oftentimes, it’s less expensive to buy a new product than to fix a defective one. Intricate new product designs are also more challenging to fix, especially those with advanced electronics and controls. The number of shade tree mechanics is dwindling, too, due in part to the complexity and compactness of new car designs whereby you have to remove 20 components just to get to the one that needs to be replaced or repaired. Plus, if a young person’s parents aren’t handy, they’re not likely to be, either.

My concern here is how the growing number of young people who don’t know how to work with their hands might further shrink the employee prospect pool for machine shops.

Even with automation and computer-controlled equipment, shopfloor employees still must work with their hands to set up machines, maintain machines and so on. Manual dexterity remains an important skill for the job. Although shops are already in a bind due to the dearth of experienced machinists, they can at least take hands-on-types of people with good attitudes and train them. But fewer handy people means there are even fewer good candidates available.

From a shop owner’s perspective, this means looking for people with experience in any type of job that requires some sort of hands-on activity. For instance, we recently profiled the president of a technical training firm who has found that work experience as a chef, for example, has proven to be a good predictor of success.

It’s not my intention for this to come off as simply a rant from a burgeoning curmudgeon. I don’t want to be that old guy who paints the younger generation with too broad a brush, starting sentences with phrases like, “In my day, we used to….” In fact, I am encouraged to see the mainstream media increasingly shedding light on career opportunities in manufacturing. I also appreciate the efforts shops are putting into generating a new crop of shopfloor talent by working more closely with middle schools, high schools and colleges. That said, the emerging “hands-off” culture does give me pause. I hope it doesn’t exacerbate the already daunting challenge of finding and cultivating new people for a career in machining and manufacturing.