As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Tinkering Makes Comeback Amid Crisis


Photo by Alex Welsh for The Wall Street Journal ---Jason Euren, an anthropology student at the New School University in Manhattan, worked with a soldering kit at the Brooklyn hackerspace Resistor recently.

When we lived in Ireland, the secondary school system had a brilliant sophomore year program called “Transition Year.”  Tenth grade was only 50% academic.  The rest of the time, students took assessments for interests and aptitudes, did work internships, created philanthropic projects, started micro businesses, learned new skills like sailing, and generally got more broadly exposed to the world.  My son Dane discovered (or confirmed?) his academic and career interests.  His friend Cillian made a crucial personal discovery via two engineering and banking internships…he learned he absolutely hates office work.  He is now studying to be a nurse, and he loves it.

Thus I was happy to learn the stats in this new WSJ article, “Tinkering Makes a Comeback.”   Kids are starting to look for “real” professions that require creativity and perhaps some hands-on involvement.  Adults are too.  The ugly reality is that a lot of software development, financial analysis, consulting, and here-to-fore respected professional jobs are devolving into computer-tethered modern day versions of piecework.  Especially at the junior levels.

I’m not against those jobs.  Plenty of people have them and love them.  But they have been over-emphasized in our society as the most desirable options.  I am simply interested in exposing people (kids especially) to a broader definition of success and career ideas.  Anyway, here are some of the encouraging facts and statements from the “Tinkering” article:

  • “Workshops for people to share tools and ideas—called “hackerspaces”—are popping up all over the country.”  124 at last count.
  • SparkFun Electronics, which sells electronic parts to tinkerers says its sales are going to be $10M this year, up from 2008’s $6M.
  • Make magazine…. has grown from 22,000 subscribers in 2005 to more than 100,000 now.”  At a time when almost every other magazine would report a reverse of those trends.
  • There were 27% more undergraduates who earned mechanical engineering degrees in 2008 than in 2003.  Computer engineering graduates declined by 31% in the same time period.
  • However…. the corporate trend in funding “tinkering” is going in the opposite direction…. R and D budgets are slipping from average 1980’s growth levels of 6%, down to just 2.6% annual average growth from 2000-2007.  See my post on Discount Culture to, partially, explain the reasons for this disturbing trend.

I find this tinkering trend really encouraging.  (I am perhaps biased because I spent all my high school free time either flipping burgers or travelling between the wood shop, ceramics studio, and a giant weaving loom.  I think it made my mind fresher for learning iambic pentameter and Fortran.)    Kids will choose careers better suited to their interests.  The increasing affordability of tools to develop products (CNC machines, 3-D printers, laser cutters, CAD software) will continue to democratize innovation.  We see it every day at Grommet.  People who could never have been able to develop serious tech and engineered products twenty years ago, are doing it every day.  We can expect innovation to keep coming from unexpected corners.

Here what Naomi Lamoreaux, an economic historian at UCLA says:

The really dynamic times in our history are times when you have lots of ordinary people who think they have a chance to make a difference.

I have a front seat on that trend every day.   I am glad it is reaching college kids and the broader population.

4 Responses to “Tinkering Makes Comeback Amid Crisis”

    • julespieri

      Holli…Thanks for the comment. I am sorry I did not see it until today…cool NPR follow up. I loved it.

      And…I grew up on a densely packed street full of people who made a living by building, or fixing, things. I think it makes you more connected to possibilities, somehow. Creative ones. Troubleshooting ones. And appreciation for the work of other people. Stuff that happens on a computer alone is so opaque.

      • julespieri

        One more new thought I wanted to share from the NPR podcast that Holli cited. The radio show guests make the point that a great deal of the innovation in the US (and globally) got directed into software advances over the last couple decades. They created Google, etc. Why? The tools to be creative and innovative were/are very accessible and inexpensive.

        But now that the tools to make physical products are now equally accessible, a lot of creative people are moving over that way. And…in either case it proves the point that people have a perennial interest in getting their hands dirty.

        And..I notice how many of these hacker-spokespeople are in Detroit/Ann Arbor…think about the population there. No wonder. People who always knew how to make things.

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