The Importance of Dirty Hands

My dear friend Octave’s account of his co-op experience (see Tuesday’s 1-29 post) reinforces my belief that no one should trust an engineer or designer who refuses to get his or her hands dirty. I first met Mr. LaBath in 1979 at an AGMA Helical Gear Rating Committee meeting; it was like attending a graduate school course in gear design and manufacturing, with the room full of people who had — like Octave — devoted their lives to making and understanding gears. Almost all of them had gotten plenty of grease under their fingernails and they had little sympathy for anyone with just an academic acquaintance with machinery.

Over the years I have preferred to hire and promote people who get out in the shop frequently. One of my favorite protégés arrived 90 minutes late for his interview because of the need for en route car repairs. As I recall we discussed AMC Gremlin water pumps while he scrubbed his hands at the beginning of our shop tour.

His seamless transition from engineering student to design engineer contrasts sharply with two young men with MSME degrees from prestigious universities [one domestic, one foreign] who a client hired me to tutor in design. Neither had ever held a wrench before I dragged them out to the assembly department to resolve a part access issue. Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey was their first lesson; next was distinguishing a box wrench from a socket. Wonderful people, handicapped professionally because they were culturally adverse to getting dirty.

Co-op programs are not as popular these days; even Octave’s alma mater has relaxed its requirements because of competitive pressures from other colleges. Full disclosure: My son is a proud UC co-op graduate in graphic design. His cohort almost rebelled at the suggestion that advances in computer technology had rendered the hands-on co-op experience unnecessary. Derrick chose UC specifically to avoid the “program of the month” concentration that turns an education into a sponsor’s demo. You cannot understand the importance of sound fundamentals until you encounter new situations years down the road.

All is not lost if your college does not offer a co-op experience. Get out of the office and observe things in the shop. Ask questions. Offer to help resolve problems or conduct tests. Get your hands dirty on evenings or weekends with ASME student projects or just fixing your friends’ cars or bicycles.

If you develop a love for gears, read as much as you can about them. Learn the terminology. When the opportunity to observe them first-hand arises, make sure you are in the front row.

Most of all, do not be afraid of asking stupid questions or embarrassing yourself by revealing what you don’t know. Everyone starts off ignorant; it takes lots of stupidity to remain in that state. Here at Gear Technology, we try to make it easier for anyone to become a “gear expert.”

About Charles D. Schultz 546 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

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