The mechanically challenged generation

Young people today can’t hold a hammer or screw a screw

By Cynthia Reynolds

It’s hard not to laugh when Barry Smith starts telling stories about the hapless young workers he has to deal with. Smith, who runs Toronto-area roofing company RoofSmith Canada, tells of one who didn’t come to work because his cat had fleas, and another who jumped off a shed roof, even though he’d just tossed bags of nails into the garbage bin below. But the laughing tapers off when Smith, 46, talks about skills.

“They don’t know how to handle a tool properly,” he says quietly. “They’re bright kids, but they hold a hammer at the top instead of the bottom, so it takes four swings instead of one to get a nail in. They don’t know how to read the short lines on a tape measure and they’ve never used power tools, which makes you really cautious.” He says they can’t seem to detect the patterns of the work—you rip up part of the roof, that gets thrown down, that goes into the garbage—so they just stand around. “It can get really frustrating.”

There’s much talk about a coming crisis in the trades—that we simply don’t have enough new recruits to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, Canada could face a shortfall of up to one million skilled tradespeople by 2020. To address this shortage, the government is funding a variety of incentives to attract young talent and it’s beefing up our apprenticeship training programs—registrations are at an all-time high. But a stumbling block has emerged that’s getting harder to ignore: by all accounts, we have the least handy, most mechanically deficient generation of young people. Ever.

It’s easy to see why.

Shop classes are all but a memory in most schools—a result of liability fears, budget cuts and an obsession with academics. Still, even in vocational high schools where shop classes endure, a skills decline is evident. One auto shop teacher says he’s teaching his Grade 12 students what, 10 years ago, he taught Grade Nines. “We would take apart a transmission, now I teach what it is.” Remarkably, most of his Grade 11 students arrive not knowing which way to turn a screwdriver to tighten a screw. If he introduces a nut threaded counterclockwise, they have trouble conceptualizing the need to turn the screwdriver the opposite way. That’s because, he says, “They are texting non-stop; they don’t care about anything else. It’s like they’re possessed.”

At home, spare time is no longer spent doing things like dismantling gadgets, building model airplanes or taking apart old appliances with dad; there’s no tinkering with cars, which are so computerized now you couldn’t tinker if you wanted to. A 2009 poll showed one-third of teens spend zero time per week doing anything hands-on at all; the same as their parents. Instead, by one count, entertainment media eats up 53 hours a week for kids aged eight to 18. As for those new apprentices? They’re signing up and then they quit. Depending on the province and trade, some 40 to 75 per cent drop out before completing their program.

In Nisku, Alta., John Wright, the technical supervisor at manufacturing company Argus Machines, oversees 12 apprentices in the welding, machinist and millwright trades. Three years ago, he started noticing two tiers of applicants, those with basic mechanical skills and a new crop who, as he says, had no clue what they were doing. He speculated the disparity stemmed from their upbringing.

“The ones from the farm community weren’t afraid to get in there and get dirty. They could figure out basic repairs. And when you have to feed the chickens and milk the cows every day, you learn how to show up to work on time.” Those who didn’t have hands-on experiences couldn’t grasp basic nuts-and-bolts mechanics, they couldn’t solve simple problems. Worse, they lacked the same work ethic, which made them too difficult to train. The implications reach well beyond the trades.

Occupational therapist Stacy Kramer, clinical director at Toronto’s Hand Skills for Children, offers one explanation for what’s happening. It begins with babies who don’t get put on the ground as much, which means less crawling, less hand development. Then comes the litany of push-button toy gadgets, which don’t exercise the whole hand. That leads to difficulty developing skills that require a more intricate coordination between the hand and brain, like holding a pencil or using scissors, which kindergarten teachers complain more students can’t do. “We see 13-year-olds who can’t do up buttons or tie laces,” she says. “Parents just avoid it by buying Velcro and T-shirts.” Items that—not incidentally—chimpanzees could put on.

When the first apes climbed down from the trees to explore life on the ground some three million years ago, it was their hands, no longer used for branch swinging, that helped trigger our evolution. Hand structure changed, enabling us to perform increasingly complex grips. The conversation between hand and brain grew more complex, too. We advanced to the unique ability to visualize an idea, then create that vision with our hands. That’s meant everything from developing tools to imagining airplanes to performing open-heart surgery. So what happens if that all-important hand-brain conversation gets shortchanged at a young age? Can it be reintroduced later, or does that aptitude dissipate?

“We don’t really know,” says neurologist Dr. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture. “That research wouldn’t get through an ethics committee, even though it’s happening on a massive scale in our homes every day.” We only have these uncomfortable clues, such as young people who can’t visualize how to best wield a hammer. Or teens who, despite years of unscrewing bottle tops and jars, can’t intuitively apply the righty-tighty, lefty-loosey rule of thumb.

Predictably, this is affecting other industries that depend on a mechanically inclined workforce. After NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab noticed its new engineers couldn’t do practical problem solving the way its retirees could, it stopped hiring those who didn’t have mechanical hobbies in their youth. When MIT realized its engineering students could no longer estimate solutions to problems on their own, that they needed their computers, it began adding remedial building classes to better prepare these soon-to-be professionals for real-world jobs, like designing airplanes and bridges. Architecture schools are also adding back-to-basics courses. As for the trades? Veterans like Barry Smith have little choice but to attempt to nurse a hands-on ability among new recruits one hammer faux pas at a time, teaching the next generation of tradespeople just how to hit a nail on the head.