This will be the first time I have written the same article for both a meat industry trade magazine and a publication directed to parents and educators of students with autism. The meat industry needs skilled tradespeople to maintain complicated equipment while people on the autism spectrum need jobs. During my career, I have worked with many skilled metal fabricators and welders who built equipment I designed. These people are now in their 50s and 60s and they will soon be retiring. Many of these talented people probably had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s syndrome, mild autism or dyslexia. They were the quirky electrical geniuses who could build anything involving electricity. Another guy who was socially shy was a creative welder who built equipment to my exact specifications. There was another group of industrial mechanics who have kept their plant running even when it went through several ownership changes. When a new owner bought it, they got the crew of creative eccentric guys in the shop as part of the package.

Some plants are desperate for industrial mechanics. I have seen billboards on highways and banners hung on fences advertising job openings for maintenance staff. The skilled tradespeople the meat industry needs may be playing video games in the basement, with an autism, Asperger’s, ADHD or dyslexia diagnosis. Too often, they become their label instead of getting to do the fun stuff with equipment.

Exposure over anxiety

I get asked all the time, “How did you get interested in livestock?” A major reason for my interest resulted from my exposure to the beef cattle industry when I was 15. Young students are no longer getting exposed to skilled trades because many schools have eliminated these classes. For some kids, waiting until they are old enough to attend college is too late. Kids need to get exposed to skills such as welding, mechanics or electrical work when they are in middle school. They need to learn that motors, conveyors and equipment are much more interesting than video games. One innovative company is teaching a public school’s robotics team how to use Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) to run their robots. This is the same equipment that runs automated equipment in most industrial plants.

The most fun I had in my life was working with the guys who were quirky and different. We had to figure out how to invent things. I worked with brilliant creative metal workers on many complex projects. Their skills went way beyond changing oil in a car or greasing equipment. Unfortunately, some parents who have a child with a diagnostic label think that an industrial mechanic’s job is not appropriate. For many students who are different, it would be very appropriate and the right career choice. Kids who love Legos are good candidates. They need to get exposed to motors and fixing things while they are still in middle school. To get kids interested and engaged, the industry needs to reach out and start classes such as 4-H small engine repair for middle school students.

That said, skilled trades are not for everybody. I estimate that skilled trade jobs at a meat plant would be a job that some students with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD or dyslexia would love. For the family that has a young adult holed up in the basement playing video games, it is never too late to start. Parents should wean them slowly off the video games and replace that activity with a trade. What academic skill level is required? Reading must be at the USA Today newspaper level and the child should know how to do fundamental, elementary school math. Algebra is NOT required.