The next wave of makers

Saturday night, I was the banquet speaker for Queen City Express – the 2023 convention for the NMRA, PNR Region, 6th Division. This was held in Regina, Saskatchewan and was my first-ever trip to the Queen City.

A banquet speech needs to be special. I wasn’t going to stand in front of the crowd and give a how-to clinic, and I certainly didn’t want to make it “all about me”. Fortunately, I have done many things in this hobby. I have worked in several scale/gauge combinations, attended conventions, operations weekends, RPM meets, narrow gauge gatherings, SIG events, train shows, exhibitions in which trains are displayed to the general public, and more. I’ve given speeches, written articles, produced and co-hosted The Model Railway Show podcast, and have been both a guest and a host on TrainMasters TV. And, of course, I’ve blogged.

But most of all, because of this exposure, I’ve had brilliant conversations with many, many people about our hobby. They include people who have been railway modelling enthusiasts for decades… those who have just started… and those who have never heard of the hobby.

Learn to listen. Then listen – a lot.

One thing I’ve learned is that for many of us in the hobby, this is more than a way to kill some time: It’s a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby – and many of us wonder how we encourage more people to join us as railway modelling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach younger people – the next wave of makers.

I run into similar questions in my professional life as a writer. I’ve worked with many clients who are trying to connect their businesses – and the products and services they provide – to their customers.

One demographic everybody is trying to figure out is the Millennials. How do they relate to model railroading?

Broadly described, the Millennials are the cohort of young people born in the 1990s or later. One of the biggest factors that sets Millennials apart from the rest of us is that this is a demographic that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist. That has had a huge influence on how the Millennials think and act.

I won’t get into detail here – you’ll just have to catch my speech sometime, at a future convention. But here are some broad brush ideas – most of which I touched on in my speech on Saturday.

First, it’s important to understand that Millennials face a very different reality than older people in the hobby. Here are three:

1 – Millennials gravitate to urban cores for a variety of reasons related to lifestyle and employment – but those are expensive places to live. That means dedicated space for a model railway and a workshop is limited or non-existent. I expect their hobby will have to share public space with non-hobby members of the family. So if they have a layout, it’ll be something small, built on a shelf, and presentation will be important. And their work space will similarly be minimalist – and be easy to pack away when not in use.

2 – For a variety of reasons related to cost of living and the changing nature of employment, it’s expected that the members of this generation will be the first who are financially worse off than their parents.

3 – Real railroads play an important role in our economies, but less of a relevant role in everyone’s daily life. This is especially true for those living downtown in big cities.

Those are challenges, but there are some positive things to be said, too. Specifically, there’s a group of young people I think of as the Millennial Makers. I believe they are the future of our hobby.

4 – The Millennial Makers are building battle bots, steampunk accessories, LEGO machines, and more. They speak Arduino. They’re comfortable with designing on computer to run a machine such as a 3D Printer that does the construction. They develop apps to integrate their smart phones with their devices. And so on. Our challenge is not “How do we get young people to build things?” but “How do we identify those who do – and convince them to give our hobby a try?”

5 – Our hobby embodies many characteristics that appeal to Millennial Makers – including the collaborative nature of the “operations” game that we play, in which there are no winners or losers. Enjoying collaborative operations works best on a large layout, and since space at home will be limited I think this cohort will embrace flexible modular standards such as Free-mo.

6 – I’ve run into many examples in our hobby where our interests overlap with those of the Millennial Makers – overlap. So we’re not as far apart as we think.

However, to engage with the Millennial Makers, we need a different approach. For them, trains are not the gateway into our hobby.

I believe we need to back Millennial Makers into becoming railway modellers by emphasizing those things that appeal to them – such as electronics, interactivity, collaborative work, and social media. For example:

7 – If a Millennial is doing something with servos and controllers, ask them how they would tackle a semaphore signalling system, a train order board, or a piece of animation for a layout.

8 – If they’re doing something with RFID, ask how they’d apply it to tracking freight cars on a layout.

9 – If they’re creating designs for a 3D Printer, ask how they would create workstation cradles, mounts for DCC decoders, or a unique structure component.

10 – If they’re interested in applications development, ask how they would create an app to turn a smart watch into a fast clock.

And yes, these are ideas that are already being tackled by hobbyists, but so what? These are the places where our hobbies meet. Let’s take advantage of that. And let’s recognize that there are many ways to approach a problem – a fresh, non-hobbyist set of eyes may be just what we need.

That said, reaching Millennial Makers will require changes to how many of us do things in the hobby. For example:

11 – We can’t do this if we’re preaching to younger people, because that will just drive them away. To encourage more people to join our hobby, we need to do more listening – to find out what fires a person’s interests, and then relate that to what we do. We enjoy a hobby unlike any other in terms of the depth and breadth of what can be done in it. No matter what a person says they’re interested in, I am confident we can find examples in our hobby to which they can relate. But we have to know what they like, first. (And yes: I’m as guilty of not listening as anyone else in the hobby – but I’m doing my best to change that.)

12 – We also can’t engage Millennial Makers – or anybody else for that matter – if our only public presence is the “Train Show”. That’s because train shows primarily attract two groups:

  • The first is fellow railway modelling enthusiasts. We all enjoy the social aspect of a train show and for many of us, these events as the only times we see some people in the hobby. But we’re already in the hobby – we don’t need to be recruited.
  • The second is families with young kids. This group is mostly looking for a way to fill time – hopefully, with something that’s interesting and educational. Most of these families attend train shows because they’re marketed as kid-friendly entertainment. That’s great if our mission is to entertain kids. But it means the parents are not there because they’re looking for an adult pursuit. In fact, inspiring them is made harder because they’ve already likely formed an impression of the hobby that they would not consider interesting as a way to spend their free time.

To reach Millennial Makers, I think we need to do more to take our hobby to where they are – to events such as Maker Faires and to meetings at Maker Spaces. (If you’re not sure what those are, searching on “Maker Faire” and “Maker Space” plus your nearest urban centre will turn up some answers. I’ve also written more about the Maker movement in a subsequent post.)

Finally, we need to do more to put our efforts online where younger, connected people can find them. Starting a blog is a good example of how every hobbyist can do that.

I hope I left the Queen City Express banquet attendees with some useful information and some ideas for further discussions. If you were in the room, thank you for letting me speak – and do share your thoughts on this via the comments section on this post (or start your own blog!), because it would be great to hear from you.

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

5 thoughts on “The next wave of makers

  1. Is there a video of this presentation? I expect that the main points have been covered in your posting, but a recording of this, together with a Q&A session if there was one, would be great to view.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry – no. One of the issues is that I don’t have permissions for all of the images I used in the presentation. I’m fine using those in an in-person discussion where the images don’t leave the room. But I don’t want to put them on the internet.


  2. Related to 3: railroads used to be everywhere and carry everything. Nowadays they’re very much more streamlined operations, so a) geographically consolidated, and b) boring (a preponderance of double stacks, unit trains of tank cars, etc)
    Some shortlines do exist on old rails which offer more variety and interest but not everyone lives close to one.


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