If you live in a rural community, you probably know the farming and agriculture jobs available to you. But did you know that STEM careers exist no matter where you live? It’s true: Science- and tech-centric careers don’t just happen in urban areas. Regardless of where you live, STEM jobs are almost always in demand and are usually pretty well-paying. We talked to Martin Nelkie, a 4‑H alum and an electrical engineer at Tyson Foods in North Sioux City, South Dakota, to learn about how he landed in a STEM job and the unique challenges and benefits that come with living and working in a rural setting.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Did you grow up in a rural area? If so, how did that influence your decision to establish your STEM career in a rural area?
Martin Nelkie (MN): I grew up on a small dairy farm several miles from a town with a population of 2,500 people. Growing up on the farm, I wanted to become a farmer, and I greatly enjoyed the lifestyle. But I enjoyed playing with fireworks, amateur rockets, as well as remote-controlled cars and planes. I studied model rocketry at a 4‑H camp at Michigan State University, and that was one of my favorite weeks of the year. I also participated in a spring competition consisting of various local 4‑H clubs where we would create various projects to present. My brothers and I would always have competitions with Lego cars, and crash them together to see who had the strongest. I really enjoyed making things, and seeing what they could do.
What was your educational path to becoming an electrical engineer?
MN: In high school, I took many AP classes, which did not have a direct affect on my college education, but were a great educational base for me to build upon. I did well with most science and some math classes in school. I really enjoyed the applications of principles with biology, chemistry and physics. I actually struggled with some of my college math courses; the math often seemed arbitrary and inapplicable. It was not until later classes like signals and systems and higher-level physics that some of the mathematical concepts made more sense.
My message to students thinking about their future is that I recommend having a first-choice career path and a backup one before starting. And, remember, there is no need to break the bank for your entire education. There are many specialized classes that I did not appreciate until after college. I attended the University of Detroit Mercy and it was required that students take three internships during their schooling. This was one of the best experiences for me, and I feel it helped me get my first job, and learn how to apply what I was learning in the work environment.
Can you tell us a little bit about your job as an electrical engineer, and what your duties and responsibilities are on a day-to-day basis?
MN: I currently work in the controls and automation department. I code PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces), which run various operations around the plants. Examples include refrigeration systems, processing chains, conveyors, and other systems. I work with the design engineering department for new additions to plants and upgrades to old equipment.
What are some of the challenges of being an electrical engineer in a rural area? What are some of the benefits?
MN: Working as an electrical engineer in a rural area requires a lot of travel to where the work is. Tyson has many facilities scattered across the U.S., and depending upon the project, we must travel to them to complete our work properly. This can be a positive or negative thing; If you are able to plan accordingly beforehand you can minimize travel by doing a significant amount of work before going to the location. The cost of living is significantly lower in rural areas, and you are able to develop yourself in a small-town atmosphere.
How would you encourage a kid who wants to pursue becoming an electrical engineer – or any other STEM-based career – in a rural area, but is worried about a lack of job opportunities?
MN: Don’t be afraid to travel. Most of the education received is universal from school to school. And with the advent of online classes, you get out what you put into it. When I went to University of Detroit Mercy, living in a big city was very different from anything I was used to. It was also one of the greatest experiences I have had, and it broadened my view on many areas of life. Had I stayed in a more rural area for my education, I may have missed out on these opportunities. There are jobs everywhere, even in rural areas. You just need to look and be open to the possibilities.