Summer is one of my most favorite yet most challenging times of year in the shop. It is when we bring in a handful of talented students to join our industrial design and engineering teams as interns.
While it can be frustrating at times to get them trained and up to speed with our tools and processes, it is fun to share knowledge and watch their skills grow. This year, we have five students helping us out as interns. It is a delight to have fresh and eager minds on staff to help us bring products to life. Of course they have some dirty jobs to do like shovel the sand out of our water jet machine, but they also get to do lots of design and prototyping. It is my hope that they both learn some relevant skills in the art of product design and some equally valuable lessons in practicality.
While I never had an engineering internship, my life would be completely different if not for the summer internship I had in 2000. I was between my sophomore and junior years of mechanical engineering at Union College, and needed some bucks before heading to England on a term abroad that fall. I was too cool to find myself an engineering internship, so I opted instead to stay at my parents’ house and work on the maintenance team at the Chesterwood Museum, the former summer estate of the renowned American sculptor Daniel Chester French. It was a fantastic gig. I installed modern art sculptures on the grounds, cleared paths through the woods, painted the piazza of the artist’s studio, and got to rip around on a golf cart all day. Sure, I had to clean the bathrooms in the morning, but this was a small price to pay for the fun I was having.
In addition to my grounds duties, I was often tasked with helping out on the weekends to assist with weddings that were held on the grounds. Part of this duty involved making sure that the unused bottles of liquor from the wedding tent made it safely back into the maintenance shed. Being six months from being able to buy alcohol legally, let’s just say that one bottle of Jose Cuervo got lost and ended up in my car. A week later I visited my then friend and future partner while she was on campus working at the college library. A few too many tequila poppers on a long July night, yadda yadda, I now find myself living with her and our two little ladies.
In addition to working at the Chesterwood museum, I worked at an antique store called Sawyer Antiques, a small batch vanilla extract store called Baldwin’s Extracts, did odd jobs for a contractor and mowed lawns. While my internships and summer jobs did not help me learn any engineering skills, they did teach me some great lessons. Here are some of my favorites.
When in doubt, pickup a broom.
In high school I worked for Sawyer Antiques. My boss and owner of the store, Scott Sawyer, would have me help him to prepare houses for estate sales. Often this was after a death of the home owner and we would go through the house, arrange the items in it and get it ready for the sale. Another kid from my high school worked on the jobs too. He was in a different social circle; I was the honor student and he ran with the smoker crowd. I thought I was a hot shot, but he totally out hustled me. When I would stand in part of the house saying there was nothing to do, he was schlepping dressers down the stairs by himself. Scott would give me sh*t and told me I should always look for something to do and never stand idle. I have never forgotten that lesson.
The art of negotiation.
One weekend, I worked for the antique store at an off-site estate sale. The sales normally lasted from Thursday to Saturday. The high rollers would come on Thursday as they did not have day jobs and could afford hunting for antiques. By Saturday it was more of a tag sale crowd that was in the market for home furnishings and knick-knacks. One Saturday, a customer came to the checkout area with a spatula that was marked 25 cents. She tried to barter and offered my boss a dime. He replied, “How about a dollar?” She was wasting our time, and it was a roundabout way to learn about opportunity cost.
It ain’t all pretty.
The Chesterwood museum sits at the end of a secluded road in a beautiful patch of the rolling Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. The idyllic estate was the summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French. The stucco studio still stands and houses studies for the Lincoln Memorial and my favorite piece, the unfinished Andromeda. The grounds had an exquisitely manicured garden. A row of pruned hydrangeas ran collinear to the main axis of the studio and was the main route leading to the woodland path with majestic views.
I worked on the grounds crew, and while I did get to enjoy the genius loci, I was tasked with most of the ugly jobs that kept the museum running. I had to clean the bathrooms every morning and pickup any stray cigarette butts that ended up in the visitor areas. The worst was cleaning out the storm drains. Every year, hundreds of pounds of dirt would wash down the drains and start to choke the flow of rain water. So I would spend nearly a week with fly fishing boots and shovels shoveling gravel into five-gallon pails and hoisting them to the road surface.
The value of a dollar.
One summer I worked for an older gentleman in town, named Dick Moffatt. He was the fourth generation proprietor of the vanilla extract store in town. He was in his seventies when I worked for him, but you would never know it. He was fit and spritely and always busy building something or working on his old 1920s and 30s Franklin cars. I mostly did odd jobs for him at his home like mowing the lawn and painting his house. One of my tasks was to repaint his front porch. I would come in in the morning, plug in a radio, blast Howard Stern and get to work. After a few days of my overzealous and time-consuming scraping job, he had a talk with me. He said, “This is taking too long. I cannot pay you this much to go this slow. You need to get through this quicker.” I always thought of my gigs as dollars in my pocket. Until that moment, it had not clicked that the dollars also had to come out of someone else’s pocket. I always strove to be more efficient in all my endeavors after that.