Virginia Tech professor gives voice to society’s maintainers

lee vinsel

Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.

Mechanics, landscapers, computer technicians, electricians, engineers, and so many more. These are the numerous professionals who work behind-the-scenes to keep society running smoothly. Often, these roles go unnoticed.

Lee Vinsel wants to change that.

Vinsel, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, has been studying the importance of the maintainers of society since he was a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. He became fascinated with the people who regulate the automobile industry and conduct tests to determine whether vehicles are safe to drive.

Recently, Vinsel and a collaborator at SUNY Polytechnic University received a grant that they expect will pave the way for conversations between leaders of various organizations and the maintainers who work for them.

Vinsel and Andrew Russell, who is dean of arts and sciences at SUNY Polytechnic University, received $189,193 from the Alfred Sloan Foundation to address the chronic neglect of maintenance. The funding will help Vinsel and Russell connect scholars, researchers, and maintenance professionals from many industries, discussing ways that leaders can better manage organizations to recognize the maintainers. They are working with Educopia Institute, a nonprofit that cultivates conversations with cultural, scientific, and scholarly institutions.

“How do you make sure that the people taking care of things are recognized?” Vinsel asked. “It’s about changing leadership and the way that we lead and manage organizations.”

Vinsel and Russell’s insight and research have been recognized around the world, thanks to a global interdisciplinary research network that they created — The Maintainers.

The two often speak on the topic at conferences, and they have written columns published in major news outlets, including a popular New York Times piece, “Let’s get excited about maintenance.”

They also are co-writing a book called “Innovation Delusion,” which tells the story of maintainers’ struggles and explains why innovation is overvalued and maintenance work is not recognized as essential. It likely will be published next year.

Vinsel, who teaches courses at Virginia Tech about innovation and maintenance, said he wants students to understand that maintainers’ jobs are important. After all, 70 percent of engineers monitor systems as a daily part of their work, he said.

“Humans have a need for recognition,” he said. “We are trying to improve the lives of maintainers.”

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