At the International Production and Processing Expo, there was a lot of poultry processing equipment and technology on display. Italian equipment manufacturers had many big displays. One may ask, “Why do the Italians produce so much equipment?” Their secret may be in how they educate their kids. Recently I visited a US kindergarten program based on an Italian educational model. The little kids were using real tools under adult supervision to make things out of cardboard boxes, old broken computer parts and lots of other stuff. They got introduced to tools and loved using them. Unfortunately, many kids are still playing with Legos as teenagers because they never had the opportunity to use tools. Legos are a great way to get kids started, but young kids need to progress to real tools.

During my career, I have observed many quirky people who started out on either the processing line or night cleanup. Many of them quickly moved into the maintenance department and started inventing equipment. This is how many specialized equipment companies got started. Today, a lot of quirky kids have labels such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, or oppositional defiant. The kids labeled OD often behave badly because they are bored.

In the US, we should be inventing and manufacturing specialized equipment needed for poultry and pork processing plants. Today, most of the specialized machinery for pork processing comes from Canada and Europe. The reason for this may be the methods Canadians and Europeans use to educate their children. At a high school in Ontario I recently visited, there was a big poster on the wall. The headline read: “Three Pathways to Success.” They were: 1) Apprenticeship in a skilled trade for students who enjoy learning by doing; 2) Two-year certificate programs; and 3) University degrees. The local high school offered many skilled trades courses. One of the worst things some US high schools have done is removing skilled trades courses.

During my career, I have worked on designing animal handling systems for many beef and pork plants. This has enabled me to observe the teams of people who put together a successful project. The visual thinkers in the drafting department layout the entire site. They also layout and design all the complex conveyor systems. The quirky guys in the shop invented most of the innovative equipment. It is likely that they flunked algebra in high school. The engineers with degrees designed refrigeration broiler systems, roof trusses, prestressed concrete design and other areas that required higher mathematics. The entire team is needed to have a successful project.

Students become interested in careers they get exposed to. I had no livestock background and my first exposure to dairy cattle was at my boarding school at age 14. At age 15, I visited my aunt’s ranch in Arizona. To get kids interested in working on machinery, they need to be exposed to it. One good program is 4-H small engine repair where kids learn to repair lawnmower engines. Robotic classes are another good avenue. One innovative meat plant sent people to the local high school and taught the robotics students how to use real industrial programmable logic controllers to run robots. These are the same systems that control complicated equipment in meat plants.

To preserve know-how and maintain innovations in the US, the entire food-processing industry needs to reach out to the schools and create programs that will get kids interested in inventing and maintaining the next generation of equipment. We need to get kids interested in inventing. My new book, “Calling All Minds: How to Think Like an Inventor” will help get them interested.