Wednesday, 16 December 2015 12:01

Americans at Work: Mechanical Engineer

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Americans at Work: Mechanical Engineer

Dave Winnes

The "Americans at Work," series, in the words of the workers themselves, explains their jobs, their motivations, and their satisfactions.

My first paying job, at 11 years old, was as a paperboy. In a medium-sized town, I delivered to a route of about 100 customers in a neighborhood of neat front yards and setback sidewalks. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings I would attach a moneychanger to my belt (gas station attendants had them) and go door-to-door carefully making change with pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters while dropping their coins into my changer. The subscription fee was 40 cents (60 cents with select magazine subscriptions). A few of the better-off customers would pay a whopping $1.60 for the whole month's subscription at a time. And every Saturday morning after collection, I would have to go downtown to the newspaper office to pay my bill for papers sold that week.

During high school I left the paper route to work at the newspaper office. Before the days of Human Resources I walked through a back entrance into the print shop and asked the foreman, whom I had never met, if there was work available. He looked me over for a few seconds (I knew his son from high school) and said to come back Monday and they'd have work for me. My after-school job was to tear down the day's master pages to be ready for the next day's fill of news and ads. This was during the last years of the linotype machine and master pages were still built line by line with lead cast type. From master page forms I would pull out cast lead news type column by column and drop it by chinks into a bucket. When the bucket was full I would push it over to an open-top vat of molten lead (650 degrees F) where the janitor dumped it. I learned to read the day's news in upside-down-mirror-image characters about as fast as I read normal print (which isn't very fast).

In our family it was assumed, though never expressed, that all of us children would do best by attending college, even though neither of our parents possessed college degrees. From my earliest awareness of vocational choices, I had a somewhat vague notion of being an engineer, not from any clear prompting I can discern even now, but perhaps, taking cues from the prevailing cultural winds, by matching my performance in math and science with this field. As I have realized over the years, I am only modestly mechanically inclined - not one of those who would tear an engine apart or build a transistor radio. But the cerebral component of engineering was my strength. So engineering became my chosen field. Other than my father as an engineering technician I knew of no one in that generation of extended family and friends who was an engineer.

In college, I eventually settled on mechanical engineering as my major. I graduated in 1974 with a bachelor's degree. Among my job stints during college summers I worked for my hometown's electric power department (they had their own power plant) finding and number-coding all of their utility poles and being teased by my friend's father about the way the town spent their tax dollars. I would ride my bike (a Schwinn 10-speed) to the day's site area to find the poles in backyards and alleys and then pedal to the office to tabulate my day's findings.

In my upper class summers I was an engineering intern with a crane manufacturer. In this job, much of what I did was drafting, before CADD (computer-aided design and drafting). Most engineers there had drafting boards instead of reference tables standing opposite their desks. Every morning we learned to mechanically square our two mounted rulers (called straightedges) on the board to insure they were exactly horizontal and vertical before starting the day's work. We sharpened the leads of our mechanical pencils with sandpaper and went to the supply room to ask a clerk for issues of new lead and paper.

Upon graduation from college in 1974, among several engineering job offers, all in the range of $12,000 per year, I settled on a job at a manufacturing firm in the Minneapolis area. What influenced my choice? Nearness to some family members and deep interest in a start-up Christian church located there. My job was to design mufflers - for any engine-driven vehicle or machine except automobiles (trucks, tractors, dozers, loaders, portable generators, etc.). How loud was the engine? How quiet did the exhaust noise need to be? How many decibels of noise energy did the muffler need to remove? How much backpressure (flow resistance) could the muffler impose? This was clearly a niche job where most of the design technology was learned on the job.

My first boss, who held the title of Engineering Manager, was the best boss I ever had. His approach fit an understanding of management that no longer exists. He took responsibility for his charges, and with a compassion and human interest that I have never encountered since. He led by conscientious example, before the days of HR-controlled management rules and writing your own reviews. During my interview, he was delighted to learn that I played a musical instrument. It was significant to him that a potential hire have outside interests so as to be well-rounded. (I played my French horn while he sang at another employee's retirement.)

My years at this job established me as a fair but not stellar engineer. I did manage to be listed as one of several co-inventors on five muffler-specific design patents and rose one corporate ladder rung to become an engineering supervisor. The early years coincided with the advent of EPA noise regulations (hence quieter mufflers). The later years saw the incorporation of catalytic converters into non-automotive exhaust systems. While working with catalytic converters, one of our VPs returned from a visit to Japan and wrote of the use of "paradium" as a catalyst. We realized he was writing about palladium but spelled out the Japanese attempt at pronunciation. The report circulated company-wide before the spelling was corrected.

Three notes of interest from these years: one, the last original family-member CEO retired (the company began in 1915); two, the company went public (NYSE-listed) and we gained that mysterious and feisty new customer to please - the shareholder; and three, the department named "Personnel" morphed into "Human Resources." Isn't that a humiliating name to employees? "Our company has many resources at its disposal, some of which are human." Overall, especially in hindsight, I have much respect for this company and its wariness of certain trendy corporate management fads, many of which could be counterproductive when not managed wisely. Management as a whole took a healthy, balanced degree of responsibility for its employees. My salary rose through the years slightly ahead of industry average; I was adequately compensated as an engineer.

Twenty-four years into a career as a muffler design engineer, our family made a unanimous decision, as if compelled, to move out of the city, and immerse ourselves in country living. In this there was a sense of leading, of calling, and it came to fruition only after much seeking and pondering. Once we moved, it became clear that the children (seven altogether) wanted to establish a dairy farm. This they have achieved famously, starting with an abandoned farm having no barn, today milking 50 cows in a swing-8 milking parlor. As the dust of this move settled (along with some soul-searching) I was back in engineering, finding work as an acoustic test engineer for a Fortune 500 commercial air conditioning company. We gathered noise data on commercial air conditioning equipment, conduction tests in incredible state-of-the-art reverberant rooms and semi-anechoic chambers. This work lasted for five years, until my job was eliminated in one of many corporate reorganization exercises.

Since 2009, I have been working as a part-time staff engineer at a small commercial air conditioning manufacturer, doing product noise testing and maintaining performance test stands.

The contrast among these three companies is striking. The first one was transitioning from a small family company to a corporate entity. It still valued personal integrity, and there was a sense of personal contribution and genuine positive feedback. The second did not have these traits. Management, particularly upper management, seemed arrogant and overbearing. Managers at every level no longer had (or were expected to have) a sense of care for their charges; there was far more a sense of everybody being on their own, each one striving to survive his next performance review. At all levels, the employee's first goal had become making sure his/her back was covered. I must clarify that this company was filled with good and very capable people; but the ability to connect, sympathize, and encourage was mostly stripped by the management style. Of course these observations are not separate from the trajectory of our culture in the last forty years. The third company, where I am now, is a youthful and enthused, with ragged edges, and still with a feeling of family.

From walking four blocks to work at my first job, I now drive fifty miles to get to my current place of work. Our home - the farm - is somewhat remote: our mailbox is one-and-a-half miles from our house, and paved highway is a distant two miles.

As a last observation, I must comment on that mother of all workplace game-changers: the personal computer and all things electronic. In 1974, I entered a workplace of pencils and pens, drafting boards, drawing vaults, slide rules (I had to use one for my final college exams), and secretaries. There was no voicemail; if you weren't at your desk, why, the secretary would answer your phone! Two large central computers, one for accounting and one for engineering, served the whole company. Today all of that is obsolete, except for the few secretaries serving company officers, and they are called anything but secretaries. Every workstation (a term coined because of the PC) has a PC, without which no office function could exist. As an engineer, the data manipulation I can do is orders of magnitude faster, and I do much more of it. Current industry-standard test procedures have evolved such that they could not be executed without computerized calculations. The personal computer has conquered and redefined the workplace. Access to information has exploded, but the overall merits of this evolution are not automatically positive, and are subject to much debate elsewhere than in this essay.

My dream from childhood was simply to marry and raise a family. That was the essence of my earliest aspirations. Vocation, I presumed, would work itself out. And it has, in a way in which this simple dream is being bountifully fulfilled. My vocational story has not been primarily about career achievement. As I have hinted, this sojourn, with its vocational particulars, has been spiritual at the core and I can say in my 61st year that the journey thus far - not without difficulties - has been rich and blessed by a sense of care, oversight and provision far beyond my own doing. *

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