Monday, July 19, 2010

The Honor of Dirty Fingernails

On a trip we just completed, the van we drove over a thousand miles in six days (a Dodge) suddenly quit outside Wichita Falls, Texas. The minute it happened, I was pretty sure what the problem was. We have replaced the fuel pump three times in six years, and since the last one was replaced about two years ago, I figured it was curtains for this one. I’m pretty sure (though not certain) that the people who designed that fuel pump had college degrees. And I’m also pretty sure that few if any of the people who helped us from that point onward had degrees in engineering, or possibly anything else. But we would have been stuck without their help.

The gentleman driving the tow truck told us he’d been a semi-trailer driver for thirteen years, then switched to towing for the next thirteen. He was the only person at the small gas station he worked for who could drive the tow truck, and so he’d been on call 24 hours a day for the last several years, except for one day off when he got married.

The guy in charge of the repair shop where they towed the van was very proud of the twenty-something young man who actually did the repair, which involved draining out some 30 gallons of gas (we’d just filled it) without setting the place on fire, dropping the tank, getting all the gaskets and clips and screws out and back in the right way, and putting it all back together again so it didn’t leak. The auto technician did nothing that I couldn’t do without some practice, but he did it in about an hour and a half. I would have taken all day and spent most of it on trips to the auto-parts store to get special tools, assuming I didn’t blow up my house first. The manager said he was very proud of that technician after watching him grow from an inexperienced teenager to a seasoned professional over the ten years or so he’d worked there.

Over 60% of Americans 25 and older have not completed even a two-year associate college degree. They are citizens like anyone else, and voters too, but to listen to certain elite groups in this country, you would think that everybody either has to have a college degree or else they represent abject failures of the system if they don’t. Columnist John Derbyshire recently cited several quotations along these lines, such as: “All students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career—no matter who you are or where you come from.” The speaker was President Obama, and for a politician it is a peculiarly unqualified statement. If he had simply stopped at “All students should graduate from high school,” I’d agree with him there—about fifteen percent of Americans over 25 haven’t even gotten that far. But at the risk of raining on my own parade (I teach engineering in college), I think it is unrealistic to expect or insist that everybody, no matter what their inclinations, abilities, or interests are, should graduate from college ore else become a second-class citizen.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the opportunity to get a college degree should be artificially restricted to a given class, or income level, or sex, or race. Opportunities should be equal for all, but if for good and logical reasons, a given student would like to cease his or her formal schooling after high school and become a great plumber, or auto mechanic, or tow-truck driver, or filmmaker (Steven Spielberg dropped out of college to go into the film business), I would like the economy to provide them with that opportunity, and for society not to look down upon them as some sort of failure simply because of the kind of work they do. Not everybody who drops out of college is another Spielberg, but the point I’m trying to make is that there are many honorable, useful, and even significant jobs out there which do not require a college degree. And that is as it should be.

The natural tendency of our society, unfortunately, is to look up to people who (1) have lots of money, (2) have lots of people working for them, or (3) manipulate symbols instead of real things. Most engineers nowadays are in the third category, but for every engineer with a college degree in most industries, there are two or three folks who build, test, sell, and fix the things that the engineers design. And while increasing numbers of the lower-ranking workers have college degrees, in many cases such degrees are still not necessary, for example in the construction trades.

The engineering-ethics angle here is to respect those whose education is not as advanced as yours, and remember that the thing called “tacit knowledge”—the right way to ease a tank full of gas down out of a car without incinerating yourself or your shop, for example—is real, and sometimes more important for a given task than anything you could learn in college.

Everyone in an honorable occupation—that is, one which isn’t positively evil—makes a useful contribution to society and deserves to be treated as an important, knowledgeable part of the grand system that makes engineering the vital thing it is in modern life. The next time you deal with such a person, don’t belittle their educational attainments. Instead, watch them, find out just how much they can do that you can’t—and learn.

Sources: John Derbyshire’s column, “The Jobs Americans Should Not Have to Do?” appeared at The statistics on the percentage of Americans who are college graduates is from the U. S. Census Bureau website


  1. Nice job. I commented on it and sort of advertised it in a post. Keep em coming. jp

  2. Hear, hear.

    I have often said - and invariably been agreed with - that ninety percent of the world's ills could be cured overnight if designers were forced to use their own designs. You only get "ninety percent," of course, if you use a broad definition of design (warmongers forced to go to war, fearmongers strip searched and held - at least once - for 72 hours incommunicado, that sort of thing); but for engineering designs the importance of using what you're creating is even greater - in part because of exactly what you're saying.

    If engineers made a point of using what they design (and I do recognise that this may not always be possible), they would come face to face with ALL of the implications of their design choices. Cost of materials and assembly cannot be the only constraining factors on the design. Ease of use, maintenance, repair and replacement, as well as aesthetics, ethics, politics and so on. I realise that it's asking a lot for anyone to keep all of the potential variables in their head while also working out the practical, physical aspects that they are being hired to do. But just imagining yourself using it or having it used for your benefit would work wonders in helping to set priorities.

    Of course, that would mean actually understanding how it is going to be used, and it's at that point that you are forced to accept the importance of people who aren't college educated.

    The American education system as a whole is, itself, a horrible example of poor design. And for that very reason Americans with a poor education may very well be at least as intelligent as those who were both fortunate enough and motivated enough to get through college. But when you make something that is unnecessarily difficult to maintain, repair or replace, you are implying that you don't value the work that is done when yours is finished, or worse, that you don't value the people who do the work.

    The example of poor engineering that always comes to my mind on this subject does so because I have to look at it every day, multiple times a day. My kitchen. There is not one single "modern" appliance in that room, nor even the cupboards, drawers and so on, that is designed to be properly (let alone easily) washed. Do you know that over 80% of "stomach flu" cases are actually salmonella food poisoning? No wonder!

    If I ever meet someone who admits responsibility for designing any kitchen appliance I'm going to _force_ him to wash one properly and time how long it takes him to do it. Then I'm going to ask if maybe it wasn't worth an extra hour of his pay to design one that either a) could be immersed in water or b) could actually be cleaned without doing so AND in less than two hours without special equipment.

    The only reason the labour of cleaning kitchen items is discounted as a constraint on their design is because it is assumed to be free. Even classic economic theory proves this assumption false as "opportunity cost" declares that anything that I do "costs" as much as the most I could be paid for doing something else. That makes a 2 hour cleaning job worth $60 to me. Multiply that by the number of appliances and by the number of households that have them ....

    Reality is, of course, that I, like everyone else, spend only the minimum amount of time to get them "adequately" clean - and it's the mistakes in the definition of "adequate" that account for most of those salmonella cases. Reality is, also, that classic economic theory is flawed simply because it measures everything in dollars. In fact the opportunity cost of cleaning those appliances is the time it takes out of my life - and that is just as important to someone who never finished high school as to someone with 6 PhD's. And _that's_ the point of view that's needed with _every_ engineering design.

  3. but for engineering designs the importance of using what youre creating is even greater in part because of exactly what you're saying.