A Few Good Nerds

A few weeks back my company was looking to hire a few people with a peculiar skill set: mine. When they came around asking, it struck me how empty my field has become. Half of a career ago I could have spewed a dozen names without looking up from the keyboard. But now, outside of my current company’s odd little enclave, I know one. And he’s not looking for a job.

And what is that skill set exactly? Well, some years ago an engineer brought me a design he needed technical drawings for. Setting to my task, I thought I saw a problem making one of the parts in our shop. Since the engineer had an advanced degree in steady gas theory from the University of Cambridge, I assumed I was overlooking something obvious. So I sauntered into his office and asked him how he intended to make that part. After a brief explanation of the problem, he threw his hands up and said (and I quote): “You mean you can’t just put it in that machine out there and thump it up and down a few times?”

Sometimes you can’t. And that’s what I do; I bridge the gap between the possible and the practical. Mainly I produce documents in the simple, but arcane, convention of the technical drawing. But on a slightly longer arc, I bridge the gap between engineers who don’t know their design can’t be built that way and welders or machinists who have questions about the drawings. Along the way, I do a little in-line value engineering, making suggestions about off-the-shelf items and stock or standard material or methods of construction that could be used in lieu of specialty items; and I try to make sure the thing being built can actually be extruded, cast, molded, machined, formed, welded, and bolted together, including making sure that the accumulation of tolerances in the sum of all of the parts–those nitty but necessary tiny variations in identical pieces–don’t result in a final assembly that doesn’t assemble. In the case of the steady gas engineer, I redesigned his device from injection molded parts and all was well. It’s a supporting role to be sure; but one I’ve always enjoyed.

This is not particularly difficult work. It can be learned by anyone with an IQ slightly north of room temperature, a bit of a mechanical aptitude, above average communication skills, a strong sense of spatial relationships, a little of the art of improvisation, a passion for detail, and a high resistance to boredom. An absence of the Dunning-Kruger effect is helpful. Oh, yeah, and let’s toss in a keen ability to synthesize a functional conclusion: not all of the straight lines you draw are on paper. Its not a bolt-on skill set. But it’s something worth bolting to.

Anyway, if it’s easy, and if there any number of geeks, nerds, and dorks who meet the skill set, where did everybody go? The practical answer is that they have retired, become consultants, retail managers, or heavy equipment repairman, or gone on to a degree in engineering, professorships in English literature, or running a music studio. The smartest of them have gone into sales. I don’t know, but suspect, that any number are chronically unemployed. That’s the exit. The entrance is murkier. I still see technical institutes and community colleges advertising courses in computer aided drafting–the typical jumping off point for folks who do what I do–so I assume that youngsters still sign up, but I have not met a single graduate in twenty years. Not a single one.

That’s because there’s no place for them. Drafting as a skill no longer exists. Engineers now do virtual three-dimensional design using inexpensive software that not only handles all of the complex spatial analysis, it handily churns out technical drawings in any number of common standards. But beyond that, companies simply no longer hire non-degreed people into technical positions. In some ways, this is understandable. HR managers are swamped with applicants. Interviewing hundreds of people to verify the existence of a specific skill set would be overwhelming. It’s far quicker to determine that an accredited degree plus X years in Position Y equals a suitable candidate. And companies want employees who can fulfill a succession plan, not just a position. Completion of a degree at least holds that out as a possibility. Higher up, managers cling to a hierarchical system borrowed from moving men and material in the Second World War. It is a system that requires a person’s skills and output be readily pigeonholed. Nothing is easier than having another entity, like a college, cut the hole for you.

But that leaves a dearth, the practical world’s gap between the formulaic viewpoint of the mechanical engineer and the nuts and bolts. Our company resolved it by hiring three intelligent, motivated, degreed people–all as green as grass–with a view to training them. In a few years, and with a little exposure to drafting, welding, machining, and forming, they will be excellent project detailers. Right now, $3 and all of their potential gets me a cup of coffee at Sparkroot. But it will work out and I’m looking forward to watching them advance. Regarde le herbe vert, mon ami.

Other companies, I worry about. One here in town makes complex medical machines. One of those machines has a door, think of the slide-out tray on your DVD player, that is supposed to open at the end of a cycle. It doesn’t sometimes. The mechanical engineers point to their perfectly functional model and blame the software engineers who point to their code and–correctly–point back. Lines of code, you see, don’t change while a machine cycles. Certain mechanical conditions do. So something changes enough to run afoul of the fact the while bosons can occupy the same space at the same time fermions cannot. All they need do is figure out  what is getting tweaked, twisted, warped, racked, skewed or expanded during the process and fix it. They need a me. Which they won’t have. Because while I am me, I am not BSME.

Nationally this is a larger, more insidious problem. Human potential can not be summarized or realized in a college degree. Yet in many technical fields, a lack of one is a barrier to entry–however well-qualified a person may be. In a gung-ho economy, people who were hired in before the degree became sacrosanct can keep working. But a flattened economy has pushed many of these folks out with no hope of ever being rehired. They do not represent potential; they represent actual: real skills and experience, folks who can walk in and be up to speed on day one. We need look no further than Japan to see the long term softening affect of this on economic recovery. The two-fold effect is that companies stay soft because they don’t have experienced people, and the economy stays soft because former wage earners are now permanently underemployed.

We need to retool. As a country, we horribly underrate and underemphasis math and science degrees. Our built world is becoming more technical, not less, and these will be tomorrow’s leaders. Beyond that, though, we need to to find a way to tap into the vast array of talented people who embody technical ability on other levels and are quite content in a supporting role.

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