Back when actor John Ratzenberger was a youngster, playtime was a hands-on experience. Barring a blizzard or other weather catastrophe, he and his friends would be outside most days, playing ball or riding their bikes. Other days, he would tinker.
“I'd always be asking my mother to take me to rummage sales,” he says. “She'd buy me an old radio for 50 cents—I'd take it apart and put it back together. Back then, everyone had a hobby.”
In the decades since, generations of children have spent an ever-increasing amount of time indoors, vegging out in front of the boob tube or computer. The trend toward shunning the sunshine has caused American kids to gain weight while losing important skill sets.
“Kids don't know how to work with their hands anymore,” says Ratzenberger. “They don't tinker, make things, play outside. Because of that, there's a growing crisis in America—too few young people are developing the kind of manual skills required by industries and engineering practices.”
Ratzenberger's primary concern is shared with most public works managers—that not enough qualified, talented people are coming up to replace the staff being lost to retirement. If the trend isn't reversed, soon the country will be left with no one to build its buildings, repair its roads, or manage its vital infrastructure.
To help stem the tide, Ratzenberger created the Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs Foundation (NBTF; www.nutsandboltsfoundation.org). While industrial mentoring programs typically reach out to teens, this group gets them while they're young. Aiming for elementary-age kids, NBTF offers mentoring programs, education, public outreach, even summer camps, all to encourage kids to get back to tinkering. The group also provides grants of up to $5000 for local organizations to conduct camp programs of their own.
While the kids and young adults taking part in NBTF activities have a blast designing, building, and fixing things, there's something larger at work.
“All great inventors have shared one thing: as children, they had all been inveterate tinkerers,” Ratzenberger says. “They fiddled with things, took them apart, put them back together, wondered how everything fit—and made something new out of what they learned. That's been the history of American business, and the history of America.”
Ratzenberger points out that the current dearth of tradespeople has put those skills at a premium. Now, kids who want to grow up to be welders, engineers, and construction workers have a bright future ahead of them.
“Tradesmen are the new heroes,” says Ratzenberger. “People who can do things with their hands—those are the new rock stars.”