Are Kids the Future of Ham Radio?

ham radio kidsYou’ve heard it a million times: our kids are the future. That statement gets applied to almost everything, including amateur radio. How can you argue with an obvious fact like that?

But I am starting to think it is incorrect.

We’ve had really good success on creating new hams of all ages in our Technician License Class (at the Tri-Lakes Monument Radio Association). We’ve been doing this for a while now and I think I am seeing a pattern emerge. We’ve been able to attract middle schoolers to the class and help them get their ham radio license. I’ve talked to many of them on the air. They’ve helped out with public service events. They seem to have fun playing with radios.

Then this thing called high school happens. The high school phase in the US is filled with tons of stuff to do: studying, homework, AP classes, science competitions, sports, dating, movies, driving and after school jobs. Way too much stuff. Ham radio starts to take a backseat to these normal high school activities. Then we don’t see the kids at the radio club meetings or chatting on the local repeater because they are busy doing other things. Have we lost them forever? Not sure.

High school is often followed by college which has its own set of challenges: a totally new environment, away from home, a new set of people, new studies, etc. There might be a ham radio club on campus but maybe not. If a kid is not off to college they are (hopefully) out doing something to establish themselves in this world. Eventually they emerge on the other side, get a job, get themselves established, sometimes with a spouse and maybe a kid or two. By this time they are 25 to 30 years old, depending on the individual.

I recently posted about the demographics of our students in the Tech License Class. The chart below shows the age distribution of our students from our most recent class. Hmmm, clearly most of our students are 30 or older. (Sorry, we have not collected age data with finer resolution.) This particular class is light on the under 18 crowd…sometimes we have a clump of kids in the mix.

chart1For whatever reason, it seems that most people find themselves in a situation as an adult that causes them to say “I want to get my ham radio license.” When asked why they want to get their ham license, the top response is always emergency/disaster communications, followed by backcountry communications, pursuing electronics as a hobby and learning about radio communications. I suspect that starting to be established in a community and having some disposable income also play a role.

My hypothesis is that the most effective way of growing a vibrant ham radio community is to target adults ages 25 to 40.

This age range is more equipped and ready to be ham radio operators and are still young enough that they will be around for a while. Of course, we still want to work with all age groups, including kids and retirees. We’ve all seen very young hams get the bug for ham radio early and carry it throughout their life. And we also see plenty of older folks get interested in the hobby as they approach or enter retirement. We don’t want to miss out on either of those groups.

So that’s my read on the situation. I’ve got some data to support my theory but I can’t really prove it. What do you think? What are you seeing in your ham radio community?

73, Bob KØNR

36 thoughts on “Are Kids the Future of Ham Radio?

  1. I think this is a good insight into how and why people get into amateur radio. Here in Ann Arbor, the demographic might be a touch younger, but not by much. Perhaps we should talk–amongst ourselves and with the ARRL–about collecting more data.

    • I’ve heard similar comments from folks at the League. They should have good data. For example, at what age do people join the League and/or get their tickets?

      There’s a different question I’d want to examine. How do folks get interested in technology and technical activities? I think that is something that might well get started in our younger years, maybe in the range of 4-8 years old. It was in my case. I went so far as to get a ticket at age 12. I continued active through high school, but blanked out during college, only to resume when I was finishing grad school. I suspect lots of people develop on and off like that, but get a start at a very early age. How to encourage the tykes?

      • 🙁
        I’d like to plant a seed. It’s about marrying the right woman too. I married a liberal arts fem-libber who is anti-tech anything. I got as far as the Technician license early on because my work was in electronics. I studied for the Commercial radio operator’s license and got to Genral class before the wife noticed. Then I tried to slip the Ham License under the radar, but she took up booze in reply. At least, I still keep up my Technician license, but no 2m Mobile rig in my car (the antenna is a dead give-away).

        So, grasshopper, find and marry a girl that loves tech of any kind, or she may hold you back at best. At worst, she will loudly remind you that she is more important than your many “hobbies”. At least ask what she thinks of Ham Radio BEFORE YOU MARRY if you are to have any chance of enjoying this great hobby.

        Rueful at 78.

  2. Just because kids tend to drop the hobby during the heavy school years and shortly after doesn’t mean they won’t get back into it again at some later period in life. Especially in the 30-54 period. Don’t count them all loses just because life swamps them! Some day they will remember the fun they had and come back 😉

  3. Interesting point of view Bob. It’s interesting to talk to many old-timers who tell you they got licensed when they were teenagers, then go on to tell you how ‘life’ interrupted their involvement. My situation was similar.

    I agree with Dan (KB6NU), it is probably worth further study!

  4. I disagree with your assessment. You are being too short termed in your thinking. You need to ensure they have the exposure. When they have children of their own, they will want to introduce them to ham radio and it brings whole families back into the mix. Let’s be honest – repeaters are fun, but it’s limited. To effectively work satellites you need more than a handheld (yes you can work them otherwise). The reality is that once my daughter who got her license on her 10th birthday was exposed to HF – a whole world opened up to her. The problem is that the lack of ability to put up HF antennas in most places now, and the high cost of HF radio setups is doing more to keep the younger generation out of radio than anything. Especially until they hit 25-40 when they have the money to do it. If we don’t train the kids now, we have little hope of capturing them back when they do come of age. Think about it – KF5UTP

  5. I started in amateur radio at age 14 and upgraded to tech. On and off through age 25 when I finally upgraded to Advanced. I’m still on and off.

    I wonder what retention rate is among the various brackets of starting ages.
    Emergency comm was really never an attraction for me as a kid. I was more interested in the technical aspects and just talking on the radio to distant places. Just a few states away was quite interesting.

  6. Interestingly, I’ve seen the same pattern at the karate school I’m a member of. Kids start as young as 5 and train regularly right up until middle or high school. Then they get into school sports and activities and start drifting away. Many of the rest disappear once they get into college. Unlike when I was a kid, children today have a million choices for activities and some are so over-scheduled it’s surprising they get a chance to excel at anything.

    To be honest, I don’t think radio can compete. At least until they’re out of college and more in control of their own time. Maybe directly targeting 20-somethings is going to be more profitable in terms of getting new hams.

    KC2TCK

  7. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

    As your numbers point out, the older population is the one that is most active. You can hear it in many, many stories. Interested at a young age, maybe got a license, life gets in the way. As the career levels off and kids leave the nest, people start looking for things to do that interest them, rather than building their careers. Such is life in our society.

    However, I personally recommend continuing to focus on introducing our hobby to youth at every available opportunity. They may not become licensed. If they do, they may not be active for long. But later in life they will be sitting on zoning boards and homeowner’s association committees. They can make a difference in these settings with their knowledge and favorable exposure to amateur radio. Plus, later in life, they may very well be putting up their own tower and working the latest DXpedition.

    It’s all about planting seeds.

    73, Jim, K5ND

  8. Kids are the future. That does not mean they will stay with it for the next 2 decades, but you’ve planted the seed, so when the time comes in 2-3 decades, they usually come back. Look at how a lot of current hams my age (30s) got their start: usually with CB, a parent that was a ham, or some other radio service. We get busy with high school in our teens, and then working to survive in our 20s, usually getting married and having kids. Then by our 30s we’re settling down and looking for something else to keep us busy, which bring radio usage back to mind. So yes keep it going with the younger generation now, many will come back.

  9. This is exactly what happened to me! Young curious kid, tech at 11, tech plus at 12. I ruled the simplex airwaves for a couple years. Then high school happened, all the socialization, and there was no room – and my parents’ focus was on getting me ready for college/adulthood, not buying me radios.

    It was only after my first big breakup after college that I thought….man, I should treat myself. Never had an HF rig…..bought an old 735 and a tuner, threw a wire out of my apartment and I was re-hooked. 15 years after _that_ return, i’ve got 14 radios and almost as many antennas up, the wife is looking at me weird and I have a CW paddle next to the shifter in the car for practice.

    Ebb and flow. Life will get in the way, but radio will always be there for that random autumn where you think “what the heck am I going to do this winter” and notice some guy’s tribander on his roof on your commute home and everything snaps back.

  10. Hello Bob.

    Your reflection is very interesting, although I do not agree with the pessimistic tone that emerges.

    I was youth coordinator for URE (Spanish Amateur Radio Union) during the last three years.

    At this time we did many activities in secondary schools, but also in primary and other age groups.

    I know the age range of our hobby in all the world, and I´m agree about the children and young people have other priorities, and also I think the HAM Radio can not, and must not take away one minute of his precious time spent to form, if not precisely for that, to be formed as persons.

    In my opinion, the Amateur Radio is not only functional and experimentation, if not being able to communicate and interact with other ethnic and social reality is central to the social development of children and young people, (and not young people also).

    As if this were not enough, I also believe that the ultimate goal of the activities with children and young people is not so much that they become licensed radio amateurs now, when they are young and children, but that in the near future (when they age be enough), they can, if they wish, become licensed Amateur, perhaps when they have 20 or 25 years … then these adults will be the future of today’s children?

    I think so, so everything you do with them now, will affect tomorrow.

    Add that morning, those who never will be attracted by this fascinating hobby, at least as adults know what is and what does the Amateur Radio and how it can serve the society to which it belongs.

    73, Miguel “MrDJ” EC1DJ.

  11. I think you have some good observations, but most of the guys that I know who are in the 40-60 range getting their license now had a seed planted in their youth. That seed was usually planted either because they were involved in one way or another with CB radio or they had a neighbor/family member who was a ham.

    Giving kids today a seed to be harvested in 20-40 years is okay, too. But, yes, I agree with your premise that ham radio cannot find it’s future in youth, in the strictest of interpretations.

  12. I’ve been in it since age 19, and when I was taking classes, I was juggling alot on my plate. School, Church and Amateur Radio. I’m glad I did. The school part didn’t do much for me. I dropped out when I turned 18. ADHD was and still is the culprit. But, the Church stuff and the Amateur Radio classes paid off well.

    73!

    -Chuck K8CPA

  13. I guess I should add this. I took classes for my novice in the winter of 1988 and got my Novice in the spring of 1989, March of 1989. I was born in 1972.

    THe ADHD affected my math skills. I can “plus and minus” with the best of ’em. But, when they start talking multiplication and division, I say “get the calculator!”

    Now my interest in Amateur Radio goes way back to like 1981 or so. My Grandfather’s youngest sister and her husband were hams, they were KA5LAB and KA5RYY. They lived in Clinton, Arkansas. I didn’t get my ticket till 1989, mainly because of the code. My ADHD was horrible back then. It’s gotten better as I get older.

  14. I got amateur licenced around 30 but I was interested in CB in my early teens and met at couple of hams as a result and also through family friends. point is, you need to target all ages. The seed of interest is often planted well before somebody gets licenced. People also come and go from the hobby over time, but older people are less likely to be swamped by life and have time for leisure or community contribution.

  15. The problem of “joining” is equal to Amateur Radio as it is with any other organization. We can’t get young folks involved in civic organizations, religious organizations, pre-military organizations and I would bet that an organization that requires an actual TEST is nearly impossible. Men are worse than women. Women love to join things, maybe not technical things, but other womanly things. I don’t know what the answer is, if there even is one, but I hope the gov’ment don’t take our bands away from inactivity.

  16. I think you might be spot on here. Late high school and college interists took up so much time amateur radio took a back seat role. I was active in emergency communications and even won news line’s young ham of the year in the 90’s. It wasn’t until lousy recently I have been getting back into the hobby and the Chinese radios rekindled my ability to get back on the air. I have two very young boys and hope to get them involved soon. It seems like ham radio comes and goes in my life but it’s a sklliset and hobby that I feel everyone could benefit from!

  17. Understanding that adolescence, high school and college–and then family life, perhaps, or any number of other distractions–can pull the young off the track. So be it. Whatever else one thinks of it, it’s also clear that early exposure to an art/science will enrich their lives and perhaps even come back in a big way later on. It’s a reasonable assumption that the early exposure dramatically increases likelihood that they’ll be hamming later.

    There is a pattern here, and something to be derived from the interest we see spiking in the years following college. …something to be recognize and perhaps even strategized against pertaining to the high school and college years slump. But it would be foolish to conclude, and act on the conclusion, that the children are not the future. Most definitely, they are.

  18. I would agree 100% that the 25-40 is the HAM ‘entry level’ demographic. But heartily disagree that focusing on kids is a bad strategy. Let me try and illustrate my point by comparing amateur radio to a slightly more modern, but very similar phenomenon; the Maker community.

    A quick search of Google turned up an NYU pdf that had a small section on the core demographic in the Maker community and they are all very similar to us; same age, mostly male, technical interest, etc. Same conclusion as Bob has.

    But when you look at Maker groups and examine their PR initiatives, what do you find? Yes, the core members are college kids and up. However a huge amount of work is directed to school kids, why? Because with a comparatively outrageous level of resources, all their studies have still pointed them to the conclusion that Makers have to appeal to potential members at an early age.

  19. This is very true. I got into ham radio when I was roughly 15 or 16. I was on the radio constantly. Then college, a job and I stopped being active. 10 years later, a wife 3 kids later and I begin to review my old logbooks and realized I missed chatting with my friends. I got a radio from my old elmer whom was getting out of the hobby. And now at 34 I found a new batch of friends. Sadly many of my friends passed away in those 10 years.

  20. I saw my first radio right before High School Freshman year, was licensed before the first semester was out. I was hooked at first sight. Got my General as a Sophomore, code and all. 42 now, AE. This post is ridiculous.

  21. I am fairly new to amature radio. I am very familiar with the principles of, but have not taken the time to take an exam. It is, however, on my list of things to do.

    My main interest in writing is to offer a suggestion as to a possible target for recruitment, mainly engineers and engineering students.

    I started getting involved in learning about armature radio as I started undergraduate research into internet-of-things devices. I found that as I stated building new devices, I needed new communications techniques, and a space to test them. This is an area of armature radio that doesn’t get a lot of publicity. That is, the ability to experiment and invent.

    To illustrate my point, I ran into a group of engineers that were working on a radio project, but had no idea regarding antenna design. It was something they were willing to learn, but hadn’t been exposed to. Armature radio has the potential to fill that role, as well as others, and bring new people into the hobby. A new generation of tinkerers and experimenters might just be the target audience for future expansion.

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  23. Thank you for all of the great comments. I wrote this to challenge assumptions and start a conversation, which is happening.

    My title was intentionally provocative…perhaps too provocative. Please look past the title and focus on the content.

    I am certainly not giving up on kids. (I used to be one myself. My wife says I still am one.)

    73, Bob K0NR

  24. One VERY important point I’d make is that there’s a difference between the seed being planted, and tasting the fruit. consider many other things: Professional Sports, Motorsports such as cars/trucks/motorcycles. These things become interesting to the very young mind, but aren’t very easy to attain as a firsthand activity while very young, as many other things rightfully take precedence in the progress and development of youngsters, especially when family budgets are often so tight as they are for so many these days. Amateur Radio is a lot like Skiing or Boating in this respect– it’s much easier to get involved at young ages when money isn’t so tight.

    In my humble opinion, SEED of the CHOICE to become licensed is frequently implanted far earlier in one’s life than a few weeks prior to obtaining one’s first ticket. That was certainly true in my case, when my uncle who was a ham, (yet I had never set foot in his shack until long AFTER I was licensed), casually shared with me on my 7th birthday what my name sounded like in morse code. It was one of a series of accumulated experiences that combined to draw me into being licensed in my early 20’s. He also gave me my first motorcycle ride, and I became a motorcyclist as a teenager.

    All that this hobby needs is for folks of ALL ages outside it to see firsthand how much FUN or excitement we are having, and they will be drawn in, just like I was. Folks will gravitate toward that which looks like FUN. After 30 years in this hobby, I have found another rewarding aspect lies in the lifelong learning that comes from exploring the seemingly ENDLESS possibilities within the hobby: Electronic theory, Propagation, Technology of new modes, Computer applications/Software for Amateur Radio… oh, and did I mention Morse Code?

    -KA1IOR

  25. I agree with the author.
    Kids now days neeed to learn about life and tying them down to a hobby can be challenging at times. The boy scouts have similar issue. Once they start to drive it is easier to go places meet girls then to drive around town on 2 meters and chat. Hams have a better success rate after college since the prospective ham have matured.

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  27. I was listening to a recording of Flex Radio founder Gerald Youngblood addressing the 2014 Digital Communication Conference at TAPR. The presentation was real interesting about how he got into the business and the history of their products. During the Q&A session he made comments that address your point. I will try to paraphrase.

    The question was what age brackets Flex products are aimed at, and the answer was 45 – 65. He went on to discuss the reasoning behind his answer:
    • Most of those entering the hobby are doing so after their kids have been raised.
    • Prior to about age 45, most folks are pretty well consumed with living, working, and raising families.
    • Somewhere in the 45-65 bracket, the demands of life ease up and there is now some discretionary money and time available to pursue interests.

    He also went on to discuss “knobs vs no-knobs” as being an issue for Flex since their products are SDR units. In discussing he mentioned that folks entering the hobby now are different from those from the previous generation in that for the most part they spent their entire work life using computers and are comfortable doing so.

    He didn’t say it, but I think his analysis ties into the phenomena we see in ham radio wherein folks get interested in Ham radio when they are younger, but leave the hobby for a number of years, and return to it later. The absence occurs while they are busy taking care of life and family. We are going to be hard put to compete for their attention during that time.
    73, Dave KD8NZF

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  30. Thanks Bob for a thought-provoking question.

    When I was a kid there were many fewer distractions than there are for kids nowadays. I got interested in radio at about age 7 (1944) when I started playing around with a small AC/DC radio which we had on a dresser in our upstairs hall. My parents also had a vintage floor model 1936 RCA radio in their bedroom which covered the short wave bands. One day I heard a three-letter morse code transmission repeated over and over and I thought I knew where to find out what that transmission was saying. I looked in the back of my Cub Scout manual and there it was, the answer to that mysterious transmission that I was hearing. Now I could make sense out of a radio signal that my dad couldn’t! I was motivated to learn this new language.

    My folks had nothing to do with ham radio but they did everything to encourage my interest, for which I am eternally grateful. They fixed up a tiny room for me as a “radio shack” and bought me a Zenith Transoceanic. It didn’t have a BFO in it but in those days WCC and WSL transmitted the call signs of ships for which they had traffic in (A2) MCW , on frequencies around 11 MHz. The traffic lists would be repeated over and over again for about half an hour before they were changed. They were transmitted at around 15 wpm. So I would copy a letter here and there as they passed through the list, and finally I had them all! That’s how I taught myself CW. I recall being intensely motivated because I wanted to show my dad that I could decipher a radio transmission that he couldn’t. In fact he wasn’t upset at all, he just kept on saying: “Instead of just listening to these guys, why don’t you get a license and join them?” So at age 14 I did.

    I have remained active pretty much all during my life, except when living in countries where it was impossible for me to obtain a local license. Even then I would join the local radio club and participate in ham radio activities that way. My career choice and pathway in life was entirely fashioned by ham radio.

    But I agree that nowadays kids have so many more distractions staring them in the face than was the case when I was a kid. I still believe that kids will be fascinated by ham radio if they have a chance to get thoroughly involved in it.

    73, Fred Laun, K3ZO
    (Foreign Service – Retired – Age 78)

  31. Thank you for your thoughts. I am a young ham radio operator. I am 17, in my last year of high-school, and work part time. I have been involved in ham radio for a bit over 3 years. I got the bug early on in high-school. I went straight for the highest and got my Extra license. I thoroughly enjoy being on the radio and getting on the air. I think that hardest part of getting on the air has definitely been a lack of time. I have lots of things I have to do, and other things I am involved in, and I am not even active in sports. The second biggest problem, is equipment. My parents are not involved him ham radio, and even if they were, they would not be able to afford to spend money on expensive radio equipment. I would not be on HF at all, except that some guys from the club loaned me a radio to use (which I still am using) and helped me get a antenna up. I know for sure that I would love to be on the air more than I am, but other things have to take priority, though not of my own choosing. I know I will pick it up later in life for sure, and I think that kids are still a huge part of it. If you get kids interested in it, they will be an active operator, getting on the air just to get on the air. From personal experience, I find that people who get into radio just for a back-up form of communication do not tend to get on nearly as often. Now I will agree that this is not always true, but I find it fairly common. Anyway, I want to say, if you want people who will get on the air because they love it, try and reach the kids. Once you plant that seed, and get them licensed, the bug will always be in there somewhere. Keep up the good work.
    73
    Justin, AC8PI

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  33. I have to agree with most of the posters here. Try to get the kids interested at a young age and get the seed planted. I was interested in radio when I was around 10 or 11. We rented an apartment from a ham but although I was fascinated with his equipment, he was gone a lot as an engineer on the AT&SF railroad. When he was home he needed to spend time with his family so he didn’t have the time to mess with a kid that had a very short attention span. My own father played with radios (AM receivers)as a youth and even built a crystal set. Alas he was a very busy man with work and trying to raise a family.
    I got into CB in 1969 and found out in a hurry the Radio Shack salesman was probably also a used car salesman. He assured me I could talk from my job or mobile to my home to my wife. I could talk to a guy in Florida just about any day of the week from So Cal but could only reach my home when about 2 blocks away. I got out of the CB business shortly after. Then a brotherinlaw that was OTR trucker got me back in. I enjoyed the heck out of it until the language got too rough for my children being with me. He told me I needed a linear. So I walked down the street and around the corner to a radio shop that had all kinds of surplus stuff. I was just browsing around looking at all the neat stuff when I was asked if they could help me. I told them I was looking for a linear and they asked what my call sign was. I rattled it off as I had a CB callsign. They told me in very blunt, no uncertain terms that I couldn’t legally own a linear and they really didn’t want my business. I found out they were all Hams. Left a very bad taste in my mouth until the late 80’s. My best friend was a ham and he turned out to be my elmer. He renewed my interest and I got my codeless Tech license in 0ctober of 1993. February of 1994 our area got hit with a very bad ice storm and I got broke in quick as to emergency operations. Needless to say I’ve been hooked on Amateur Radio since. I finally upgraded to General in 2013 and will work on my Extra as I can. The guys in the radio shop could have been a little more forgiving to a CB’er and explained a little bit more and probably could have recruited a new Ham on the spot but their attitude threw me off for about 12 years or so.