Flour Power: Young Engineers Director Term-End Report from Minneapolis

With a name like Cadwallader Colden Washburn, or “C.C.” as he was called, was it any wonder that this 19th century lawyer, former Wisconsin governor, and flour magnate would become entrepreneurially emboldened by the industrial revolution and put Minneapolis on the map?

I was in the Twin Cities for the 2013 NSPE Leader Conference and Annual Meeting, and in a rare set of spare hours at the end of my travels, I found myself at theMill City Museum, standing atop the ruins of the Washburn Crosby ‘A’ Mill. Above me, the Gold Medal Flour sign, in large yellow block letters, gazed down at me as if they were the discerning face of Washburn himself. The view was worthy of any titan of industry with St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge serving as the backdrop for the Mississippi River flowing on and on, connecting past with present.

In 1878, just four years after being built, an explosion leveled most of the plant. The rubble of the devastation was staggering, along with the many lives lost as a result. The recovery came quickly and steadfastly though, perhaps as a reflection of Washburn’s own determination. The redesigning and reconstruction that followed was epic. By 1880, the mill had become one of the most technologically advanced flour mills in the world, at one point producing the flour equivalent of 12 million loaves of bread a day. After a fire ravaged the site yet again, the ruins, as they stand today, are anything but foregone architectural relics. The modern site, brought to its current American Institute of Architects (AIA) award-winning splendor with the help of St. Paul-basedLKPB Engineers, stands as a testament of learning from the past, of building anew, and of reinvention.

Reflecting on the annual meeting, I was excited to see so much similar rebuilding of NSPE over the past two years. New members of NSPE leadership, including young engineers (YE) Amy Barrett, P.E., taking over as Central Region Director and Scott Wolf, P.E., who is following me as Young Engineers Director, are signs that the long-term transformations are just at the start. On a particular night, when a group of my fellow YEs joined me to talk about the future of the profession at the Gordon Biersch brewpub, we discussed technological challenges ranging from fracking and water resources to dam construction and perfume manufacturing, all part of an engineering profession that was becoming more and more complex. WithNSPE’s Race for Relevance initiativealive and well in its second year, I could see here around me, across the tops of pint glasses of microbrewed IPA and stacks of loaded nachos, that structural engineering of another sort was firmly in place. The new leaders were rolling up their sleeves to not just rebuild foundations, but to establish new legacies.

My own journey over the past two years as the Young Engineers Representative on the NSPE Board of Directors had seen twists and turns rivaling that of the elaborate labyrinthine Skyway that connects the nearly 70 blocks of downtown Minneapolis (within which, despite my best lab-rat efforts, I continued to get lost in on a regular basis—someone must have moved my cheese). But in reaching out to over 300 students over the past two years through my Career Engineering Roadmap seminars, in promoting the path to licensure to diverse disciplines of engineers, and in engaging with the countless e-mails and phone calls I’ve had with emerging engineering professionals, it was easy to feel the gravitational pull of NSPE’s greater forward momentum as a whole. As I now start a 12-month stint as the chair of theProfessional Engineers in Industry(PEI) interest group, there will be much more still to think about as professional engineers seek out continued value creation within the industrial landscape.

In the filmYoung Adult, Charlize Theron plays a teen-series author at a crossroads in her writing career and despite having moved to Minneapolis (“Nobody calls it the Mini Apple, anymore!”) to pursue her profession, she finds that the true source of her angst has stemmed from her turbulent past in the nearby backwater Minnesota town of her youth. She had lived a drama entwined in teenaged rumors and high school sweethearts and was struggling to reconcile with herself the reasons why people have to move on, why success is relative, and why people get that strange feeling when returning to the same place from which they started, only find it unrecognizably changed. But perhaps it is up to us to find that in traveling from past to present, it is not only the place that has changed, but that we ourselves have changed.

The next revolutionary transformation may or may not be related to flour, but it will certainly involve engineering; as a profession, engineering is ready for breakthrough change. I lingered on that thought as I descended from the roof level of the museum. Looking out the glass elevator as I rode down, it was hard to tell whether I was sinking or if the river was rising.

I was soon to be on a flight back to the Big Apple and it was going to be a busy year ahead, but I felt inspired. That conglomerate of factories that C.C. Washburn founded here over 150 years ago still exists today as a single $16 billion company—called General Mills.

I could almost feel C.C.’s encouraging hand on my shoulder as I dashed out to the street before my parking meter expired. Western novelist Louis L’Amour once wrote, “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.”

I was heading home and I had plenty of work to do.

Published August 15, 2013 by Austin Lin

Filed under: annual meeting,

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