Where do Little Engineers Come From?

E-mail Ed Ramsden

The reader feedback pages of many engineering trade magazines could make you think engineering is a truly horrible profession, and that no sane person would want to go into it. Why is that? I went into it, and most of you did too. What gives?

Gloom and Doom in the Press
Those readers complain about:

  • Limited opportunities for advancement
  • Near-zero job security
  • Low pay (compared with other professionals)
  • Poor working conditions
  • Poor image of engineers in society

Those who send their grievances to magazines might not necessarily be representative of the profession at large. How many people write to the editor of their local newspaper to say they are happy and generally content with the way things are? People with axes to grind tend to be vocal, and their stories make good press because—presumably—they are the exceptions.

The popular press doesn't make engineering look very attractive either. Daily coverage of layoffs, plant closures, and jobs going to the third-world Hell-Hole of the Week would make you think that the U.S. is going to be holding a giant going-out-of-business sale any day now. If you are an intelligent high-school student who watches the news or reads a newspaper, you would have to be out of your mind to plan a career in engineering. This is probably why engineering has become a less popular field to study in school, partly because of the impression that there is no future in it and partly because of the impression that you can make more money with less work and more security in other fields (law, medicine and business).

A Brighter View from the Schools
I believe that some of the most talented engineers develop an interest in the field long before college. Some have argued that there is no good reason for trying to get young people interested in engineering before formal studies. After all, practitioners of other professions such as law, accounting, and medicine typically don't get any exposure to their fields before formal schooling, and they get by just fine. Of course in other professions, such as music and art, the best practitioners often get a very early start. In some ways I believe engineering is closer to art than to accounting.

I also believe there are several really good reasons to cultivate engineering talent at an early age. The first is to identify that talent. While it could be difficult to single out individuals who might make good surgeons at an early age, other than by general intelligence, the kinds of curiosity and visual thinking and reasoning skills used in engineering are easier to identify. Youngsters who show mechanical aptitude and curiosity are likely to do well at engineering just a few years later. If they don't have experiences that exercise and expose these aptitudes, it may never even occur to them to pursue engineering.

One example of the educational opportunities that need to be provided is Dean Kamen's FIRST Robotics program, instituted for high-school students. While the technical experiences gained from participating in this program are certainly valuable, the opportunity for a student to learn whether or not he or she has the necessary interest and aptitude in technology may be even more so.

Head Straight for the Engineering Department
Another important reason for identifying such talent is that it is difficult to complete a typical engineering program in fewer than four years of college. Entering freshmen without a strong interest in engineering are very unlikely to pursue the field later. In contrast, you can major in a wide choice of subjects as an undergraduate and still make it into law school or an MBA program further down the line. With these options there is less pressure to make the "right" choice when you are only 18. Another related factor is that by this point students will probably be looking at career choices, and make the perfectly rational decision that many other professions offer better pay for less work.

Interestingly, there is nothing to prevent a student from undertaking the study of engineering, and then moving into another profession. Most reasonably intelligent people, however, will have developed some sense of economy by the time they reach college age, in the sense of not wanting to expend unnecessary effort to reach a given goal. If your goal isn't engineering, then spending four years in engineering school definitely falls under the category of unnecessary effort.

The Fallout
A lack of new engineering students will mean a lack of rookie engineers four years later, and a lack of experienced ones in another 10-15 years. The much-lamented shortage of engineering graduates in recent years could become a real, as opposed to a hypothetical, problem if technical enrollments were to drop dramatically as a result of popular perceptions of poor prospects within the field.

If this happens, we will be looking at serious talent shortages in the near future. As incredible as this may sound, I have found it very difficult to recruit good technical talent. While there are many specialists out there, my experience in trying to hire engineers is that there seem to be few applicants with the broad-based skills needed to effectively design and use sensors. And I am not talking about trying to fill some of the impossible "shopping lists" that HR departments dream up. Even finding candidates who have a good understanding of fundamental electronics and physics is a chore.

If young people continue to write off the engineering profession, finding the minds we need will become harder and harder. And we could be in for some serious problems sometime down the road, both as an industry and as a society.