Epic Expectations

Do We Really Need to Believe We're Each on Some Heroic Journey? Don't Kid Yourself. We All Need It

Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

We've all heard repeatedly about accelerating baby boomer-based retirements and the brain drain coming to the process control field and the even more scary signs that most young people don't want to go into process control, engineering or many of the math and science-related fields. We've also all heard about increased participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition, and other programs to spark students' involvement in technological fields. All of those programs, organizers and participants deserve a huge thank you. So, thank you again.  

However, my nagging question is what made engineering, science, math and other technical professions so apparently bland and unsexy in the first place? And what can be done to cure the cause as well as the symptom? From the Hoover Dam to the NASA space program—and, yes, even in many big-ticket process applications—engineering used to be pretty cool. So what the heck happened?

The answer is right in front of us. In recent decades, many technical fields have become—or at least appear to be—mind-bendingly boring, and most kids seem to know it. 

Why? I think it's because disciplines from medicine to engineering have been chopped up, specialized, segmented, corporatized and hyper-specialized to the point that few technical professionals have a real connection to the users of their efforts. As a result, many begin to lose the feeling that their work relates to their organization's mission or serves the needs of their users and larger community.

The grumpy doctors and detectives on TV are always going against orders to run around and save lives. The research epidemiologists, cops, engineers and programmers I know? Not so much. If they're not sitting in cubicles staring at screens most of the time, they're filling out endless paperwork and waiting for something to happen. The difference is that the fictional characters appear to have a human connection in their jobs that the real ones do not.

I've noticed that today's lean-and-mean efficiency seems to leave little room for sweeping drama and romantic appeal. Hey, I feel goofy just bringing it up. I mean, who really needs personal drama these days? Do we really need to believe that we're each on some heroic journey? Don't kid yourself. We all need it.

I recently quizzed a couple of young college guys on this topic because they've literally taken more dramatic routes. The first is a National Merit Scholar who is studying theater and improvisational comedy in college, rather than continuing the math and science studies that he excelled at in high school. The second is a newly minted chemistry graduate, who has decided to take a job building theater sets, rather than put his degree to immediate, expected use. Both liked their technical studies, but they love the excitement and hands-on activity of the theater—even though it's likely to pay very little compared to a technical job.

So what's the solution? Besides encouraging students, maybe you could do more to identify the essential value of your work and that of your colleagues, and seek to revitalize its connection with the users and communities benefiting from it. Back when I worked in grocery stores and fast food restaurants, I learned that even my little minimum-wage jobs produced some real connections. I think pretty much everyone I've interviewed since could say the same, but many may need a reminder—some kind of reintroduction to why their job is useful.

Maybe you or your company could commit to some really immersive cross-training to reestablish those connections. Try to continually show colleagues and rookies how their work contributes to their organization's larger mission, and maybe even seek new ways to make it a long-term, socially useful member of its community, rather than just a short-term, profit center. Man does not live by bread alone, remember? Sounds pretty epic to me.