Column Femke IJsseldijk

Getting your hands dirty?

If only my students would…

Something strange is going on. Young people are avoiding technical studies because they fear getting their hands dirty. They apparently think of technicians as people covered in oil and dirt all day, never getting their nails quite clean.

And of course, some engineers do face some rather gross substances in their work. If you work in the plumbing business, you might want to wear gloves. But you will meet lots of grateful customers to compensate.

In the older days, engineering was hard and dirty labor indeed, with lots of steel, charcoal, oil, dust, heat and smoke. Even designing new machines marked your hands with spots of ink, chalk made you sneeze and your back would ache because of the laborious drawing on paper. But these days are long gone, and not just because of health and safety regulations. Engineers are inventors, after all, we fixed it. So drawing is done using a screen now, models are printed instead of handcrafted and calculations are carried out by computers. Working in factories has become cleaner, lighter and healthier. HBO graduates seldom work in the factory itself though, they would be sitting in the air conditioned office beside it.

So it’s time to reframe. I’ll give you three advantages of working in the technical sector. First: engineering is very satisfying work, because of the concrete goals. Something works, or it doesn’t: that’s all there is to it. Second: because of huge staff shortages, every engineer can choose where she or he wants to work, and for a nice salary at that. I’m sure not every newly graduated Bachelor can say the same. And, third and last: it makes a difference. If you want to give your life meaning: technicians are the people who come up with actual solutions for, for instance, CO2-reduction. The only thing I, as an Engineering lecturer, regret is that I actually would love my students to get their hands dirty. There’s nothing like using your hands to get a feeling of where engineering is all about. So I’d like to propose an innovation: from now on, dirty hands obligatory, at least twice a month.

Femke IJsseldijk, teacher Engineering