I recently went to a Blockheads concert and was reminded of this song from 1978. It’s about life choices and how confusing it can be for young people. It was a popular song when I was making life choices about what next after secondary school. The phrase ‘What a waste’ was exactly how some of my teachers describe my choice of studying engineering at degree level. I previously wrote a post about Stepping in to Engineering describing someone else’s journey. Mine was rather different. I had no clear view growing up of what direction to choose for a career. I was pretty much lost when our career guidance teacher started to talk about University application. In the Irish system, all the school results generated ‘points’ and the number of ‘points’ dictate what courses you could gain entry to. I could apply for any University course and admission was purely ‘points based’ not requiring personal statements or interviews.
I felt more drawn towards ‘science’ subjects and was interested in how things worked. I gleaned from the newspapers that there was a shortage of engineers and courses were expanding. I read about industrial engineers being able to improve the efficiency of industry to make it more viable. I lived in the West of Ireland and in our town the sugar factory was a huge local employer. Many of my schoolmates had parents who worked in the factory. In late Summer, the town would be very busy with the railway busy shipping the sugar beet in throughout the ‘campaign’ season. The cooking sugar smell from the factory hung low in the air and permeated the whole town.
In 1978, there was a shock announcement and a proposal to close the railway line. Local people were very worried as it seemed this would eventually lead to the closure of the sugar factory and nearbly Erin food factory. A threat to the sugar factory was not to be taken lightly. Three local politicians went on hunger strike. They set themselves up at the Town Hall and announced they would not eat until the threat had been removed. One of these politicians, Joe Burke, was the father of my school friend. My friend was worried, as were her seven younger siblings. The local hunger strike was called off after a week with the government agreeing to review the issue about the closure of the railway line. However, the review concluded it was not viable. The railway line closed and after some time, so did the sugar factory and food factory. There was a loss of jobs and a depressed local economy, many people had to leave the town to find employment. This Sawdoctors song expresses well the feelings of many youth from my home town unable to find employment. Every day the same and little to look forward to.
This series of events probably brought home to me in a dramatic way how dependent the town was on engineering and industry. I hoped that by becoming an engineer, I could be part of a better future. The town never regained the ‘boom days’ of sugar factory employment. However, by the time I graduated, high tech jobs were becoming available in electronics companies requiring a different skill set from the next generation. Multinational companies were attracted to Ireland by the availability of a young, educated workforce. Engineers from my degree course directly contributed to the electronics industry and medical device industries after their graduation.
Now in recessionary times again with widespread emigration, the same questions arise. How best to react to these circumstances? Education brings options.
Definitely not a waste.