In Defense of "Lazy" Millennial Engineers

How did many of the engineers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s get started with engineering? With many of the engineers I speak to, it was via tinkering. Tinkering, deconstructing, disassembling a product just to find out how it works and without knowing how to put it back together is the heart of every engineer. Many senior engineers grew up with technology that could fill these curiosities. However, as technology became more complicated the curiosity of the “tinkerer” had to find a new home.

Many senior engineers I talk to say that millennial engineers do not like to work with their hands. They avoid manual labor or figuring out how to build things. These engineers grew up with shop classes or cars that could be taken apart or put back together in their own garages. They knew how to build their own radios, build a car from scratch, and how to weld. So then the question becomes, why did the engineers of today stop mechanical tinkering? The simple answer is it became too expensive.

Let’s examine the cost to fix your car. The average vehicle repair costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation since 2012. According to The State Journal of Springfield, Ill., the cost of auto repair saw an increase of 3.4% in 2014. If we look back at 2012, CARMD.com reports that the average repair costs were up 6.53% for the West Coast and 11.56% for the East Coast. In 2014, repair costs arose 4.6% on the West Coast and 3.9% on the East Coast. Things have improved in recent years. As of 2015, according to CARMD.com, costs went down due to a decrease in labor costs. Labor went down by 4%, causing a 4.7% decrease on the West Coast, and a 6.5% decrease on the East Coast. (See the map below.) However, the cost for repair parts went up 1.5%. Looking at these numbers, the last five years of do-it-yourself car repair has been a costly endeavor. For the young engineers of today, tinkering on that level no longer became feasible. So what did they do? They turned to the computer.

The personal computer was introduced in 1977 with the Apple II. The price point at the time was $1,298; adjusted for inflation, that price comes out to $5,201.40. While expensive upon its release, the price point of PCs has continued to drop and become more affordable to the public over time. If we compare the current cost of an iMac, the top-of-the-line model is offered at $1,499less than a third of the adjusted price of the original Apple II.

When the mechanics of the world became out of reach, the tinkers went to the computer. They started to code programs, design websites, build computer models, and create entire virtual worlds. Minecraft is one of the most popular games among children today. They can create buildings and complete cities. They get introduced to the world of engineering via computers. Personally, as I entered engineering, I gravitated toward computer-aided design modeling. I found it intuitive, considering that I had grown up using computers my whole life. Modeling, simulating, creating CAD assemblies, laying out drawings, and working out kinematic models is how I found my world of engineering. For many engineers entering today’s world, the area of computers is what the garage used to be; it is the world where we can explore what engineering has to offer.

And now the world of makers has come full circle. With 3D printing, the tinkerers are starting to build physically. They are constructing prototypes for their virtual designs and even creating their own startup companies. Industries are taking notice, too. Solidworks, for example, now offers an entire virtual ecosystem that will take your design from concept to build. The software helps with the design, runs simulation to ensure its strength, and helps set up the CAD part for 3D print production. The maker space has become the new home of the tinkering engineer. Millennial engineers are not lazy or afraid to get their hands dirty; they just found a new playground to explore. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 15

on Mar 6, 2017

I work as a designer/engineer creating tooling for a large unit HVAC manufacturer so the thoughts that follow are from that perspective (primarily mechanical engineering). While I agree that the tools for engineering have improved drastically from the "good old days" when tinkering was the best method of design it will never be a substitute for experience. I cannot count the number of times I've come across seemingly fantastic engineering designs only to find out that they are either too expensive to build or they simply do not work in the real world. Todays engineers have a fantastic set of tools for design, analysis, multi-physics simulation and more. All of those tools are getting closer but none of them are true to real world examples. They are based in a theoretical perfect world (where you don't have to get your hands dirty). I have worked with numerous co-ops in my line of work and one of the biggest lessons I attempt to teach them is that they need to understand not just what they are designing but how their designs are eventually made. I have them go out to the shop floor and watch what the operators have to do to make a part. They can ask the operator about the processes and what kinds of issues they run into depending on the part or the tolerances and how those factors affect the manufacturing process. Until they know how a part is made they don't really know what they are designing. That's why I insist that ALL mechanical engineering students should be required to operate machines and fabricate parts that they design before they can receive that diploma. Otherwise they are entering the workforce with only a theoretical view. This would also give them a little "experience" that most employers are looking for.

on Mar 6, 2017

You sir, are absolutely correct. I am in full agreement with you.

I believe the entire mechanical engineering sector is doing everyone a disservice by not providing a platform for working professionals to be heard. The industry lends an ear to corporate and academic voices, but not so much to the people who have to actually do the work and ensure new entrants will one day be able to take their places.

on Mar 6, 2017

I appreciate the point this article is making, but I do not agree. White Glove Engineers are not learning the basics by starting out designing or making things. You can see the problem in glorious 3D by visiting Maker events in person.

They simply don't know or understand what makes a given feature on a part important. When you start digging into their part drawings and models you can see the absence of elements that separate engineered components from those of tinkerers.

Counterbores are almost never seen, countersink angles don't match the angles on the fasteners on the BOM, materials selections are arbitrary and often wholly incompatible with the design purpose and other materials in the assembly. Overall fit and finish are sometimes not terrible, but there are always too many right angles and fit tolerances are not known. The entire concept of mechanical advantage is missing. Just not there.

I don't expect young folks to have 25+ years of design experience, but I do need them to understand the basics. I'm even good with them if they include details they don't understand, but realize they must do something. That means they've explored enough to see recurring usage of details. They've used tools and sought to know how something works. Without the drive to procure tools and the willingness to risk breaking something just to know those kids are really putting themselves in a bad position.

The younger people who don't want to put their hands on things are not building skills and knowledge by working on their computers. They're building bad habits and designing things that aren't fit for purpose.

The fact of the matter is that I can't hire people who don't know and understand the basics. I don't care if they've got a wagon full of degrees from Stevens and MIT. There is a core skill set mechanical engineers must possess and I'm not going to disenfranchise my other people by having them teach basics to a new hire who thinks their degree justifies a market wage.

on Mar 6, 2017

The need for hands on experience, should be addressed at the high school and college levels of the education system.
Most of the practical knowledge gained actually helps clarify the theory when it is studied. For example: hands on experience with lumber and building a shed or deck, makes the concept beams, and bending moment much clearer, and the moment of area and neutral axis are much easier to visualize.
In addition colleges and corporations should be actively recruiting "makers" to broaden the overall labor resource with both doers and thinkers.

on Mar 6, 2017

Many years ago I was in need of someone to develop into a mechanical designer for our machine tool company. I heard about a machinist who was playing around with an online CAD program. When I went down to the shop to talk to him he was running three machines at the same time. Best hire I ever made!

on Mar 6, 2017

I can say the same for young electrical engineers. But more importantly, I want to say that many of recent graduates lack basic knowledge of the modern engineering tools available for electrical engineers (which is expected of them). Very few have the discipline to go into serious computer simulation of circuits, because they are used to "quick and easy" type setups, and simulation requires a lot of details, as others are pointing out.
And when it comes to getting your hands dirty, my experience with young engineers is that they also lack the basic skills of proper instrumentation and how to use measurement equipment. If I see anyone pushing the "autoset" button on an oscilloscope, I tell them that's a clear sign they know nothing about what they are trying to do.
It is sad that having so many very fancy computer tools available, very few dare to really learn how to use them properly.

on Mar 6, 2017

I see a lot of non-engineers whenever I visit AutoZone. They are maintaining cars as best they can, and have hand-on experience which seems indispensable for a mechanical engineer.
The big obstacle for the home mechanic is lack of information. I bought new cars in 1966, 1972 and 1993. In each case I bought the manufacturer's shop manuals. There used to be an form in owners' manuals for ordering shop manuals. The 66 Buick manuals cost about $12.50. The 72 Buick was maybe $20. Manual and wiring diagram for a 93 Taurus ran $120.
I even ordered Chrysler manuals for a used 74 Valiant. For current production cars, I don't know how you can get this information. Haynes manuals are a poor substitute. The best you can do is search for a youtube video.
Then you find that the vehicles are much harder to work on than in former years. I worked 3 days recently to replace a F150 heater core and air damper. Had to swing the entire dash out of the way. I've overhauled engines that were less trouble. CAD designs with Solidworks can indeed produce compact mechanical systems that are probably easily manufactured, but are a nightmare to repair.

on Mar 6, 2017

I asked my daughters to read this and stressed the importance of knowing where "the rubber meets the road" and what goes on there. My older daughter had this response:
"I agree! But they really should blame the problems on their generation..... We were educated this way, and forced to focus on technology. Yes, there should be more individual exploration, but the professionals have changed because their education and training has changed. Bring back the trade schools (: "

She is 20 and studying psychology. I suppose some of me rubbed off on her though, she is somewhat hands-on.

There is hope!

on Mar 7, 2017

I am one of those tinkerers, I was brought up on a farm and learnt how to fix things using my hands and my initiative. I went to technical college and got my qualifications and diversified into other specialisms to meat the demands of the industry. The industry has now kicked me in the teeth, they would like a graduate with no tool skills and no exposure to the whole engineering environment to be employed by them. iv'e not sat on my backside, i have built a 3D printer and learnt to program in C# amongst most recently obtained skills. If i hear the cry come out from industry one more time that there is a skills shortage - Its a fallacy, load of pants. if you are looking for skills you need look no further that the unemployment lines for the over 40s. Industry has changed the employment criterion and until they face facts they wont acquire any skills for the next 10 to 20 years. that's the time it will take if you heavily invest now to get a return on a new skills training policy. The UK claims it has such a skills shortage now and is going to invest in new non vocational skills training to fill the gap, meanwhile the students parents are skilled and unemployed whilst the skills gap is apparently being filled by migrants which is also not filling the gap. How can you guarantee you are employing a skilled person from abroad if they are struggling to speak English. I would think communication would be very important in an engineering environment in an English speaking country. But wait, apparently i'm being racist to even suggest such a thing and incorrect - Its only skilled high achievers that are being brought in to fill the gap. What a load of bull, its labourers that are filling the market and willing to accept lower working standards and wages, thus reducing the wages increasing profit. For every foreign worker employed on the cheap the tax payer is having to cough up support for potentially two other individuals, i don't know if you have noticed that most people end up with a partner I.e. become a couple If one is the bread winner and is a skilled unemployed worker, do the math. Employers should take more responsibility for their staff and the good of their nation instead of this capitalistic greed machine. Or just pay more tax to pay benefits for their unemployed neighbours, yes it really does affect people that close to you.

on Mar 7, 2017

I'm about to change a door seal and bearings on my washing machine today, its not the first repair i have carried out, previously i replaced components on the control board after it had a hissy fit. This evening i will be welding a frame for an exhibition stand and later getting my accounts up to date. jjthompsonengineering.co.uk

on Mar 7, 2017

During the 1980's I worked for a German company in both North America and Europe. At that time German engineers, at least with my company, had to work in the field as technicians before getting their engineering degrees. They had a keen awareness of how products are maintained and why products should be designed for more than just the manufacturing process.

on Mar 8, 2017

I agree with the previous comments and want to add some more insights. First I disagree completely with the article that the cost of car repair has kept young people from tinkering, if anything it would encourage tinkering. The high cost of car repair is from labor and regulations, not parts. The cost of parts is marked up at a shop, cheaper if you buy them yourself at a parts store, and required no matter who fixes the car. Another reason young people can't tinker on old cars is county regulations that prohibit cars parked on grass. Unless the family has the room to store an old car somewhere on cement they can't have it on their property. A lot of good engineers came from farms where they learned from their parents how to fix broken things with whatever means was available because they couldn't afford to wait for a repairman to schedule time to travel to the farm to get them running again. In comparison non-farmers tend to have jobs that are specialized and their answer to broken items is to call specialized repair people. The parents don't spend time showing the children how to fix broken items, therefore the children get very few opportunities to have hands on experiences.
The article suggests that young people using computers to "tinker" is just using "different tools" but that virtual world doesn't compare to the real world. It's like learning how to fly in a flight simulator compared to learning in a real plane in the air; which would you trust? Having hands on experience teaches the consequences of not knowing how to do something correctly and the satisfaction when a successful repair is made. It would be very helpful if the schools and universities could figure out how to give hands on experience to the students as part of their education. Hands on experience should make the other classes have more relevance to everyday life.

on Mar 13, 2017

The educators need to pull their heads out of their behinds and industry needs to involve education more in their workplace either complimenting their staffs education or by involving their company in the education system. Both give it lip service yet both are equally to blame.

on Mar 13, 2017

Why? Wally world will change the oil for $30. 22 is oil, 4 is a filter. I can't do it for much cheaper than they do. Tinkering has become a luxury. I love working on my cars, but I no longer have time or money for it. I will spend my time working three jobs to pay off the student loans I took out to get my engineering degrees. Degrees that were supposed to land me the "good" jobs that no longer exist.

on Mar 14, 2017

We find that the influx of technology has been an incredible resource to bring engineers together. Yes, working on a computer is much less of a hands-on experience, but there are many advantages to working in this technological realm, as well. For instance, engineers can receive more valuable feedback on their work faster than ever before. They also have the ability to collaborate with other engineers easier and faster, too. Check out some of these current projects to see designers and engineers using each other as resources : bit.ly/2lPiJPx

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