Friday, February 04, 2005

No One Wants to be an Engineer, and No One Will

From the National Intelligence Council report, Mapping the Global Future: Policy Implications:

"The number of US engineering graduates peaked in 1985 and is presently down 20 percent from that level; the percentage of US undergraduates taking engineering is the second lowest of all developed countries. China graduates approximately three times as many engineering students as the United States. "


This is as much about education as it is short-sighted planning on the part of the U.S. companies. I just finished Built to Last as part of a management seminar I'm taking this semester. Throughout the book, the authors comment on the R & D focus of the visionary companies like Merck and HP that are very scientific companies. These companies created a great environment for engineers and scientists, who by their nature, are creative people and need room for exploration.

In this new environment, everyone's a contractor. No one is invested in the firm, and the R & D and technical people are the first to get rolled out in an economic downturn. A focus on quarterly results and the quick ROI don't allow for spending money on creative activities that might fail. No one has any security, and instead of worrying about research or new ideas, everyone's just trying to keep their head down and out of the firing manager's sight. Who wants to be a scientist (or can be a successful one) in this environment?

That's not how you conduct research and develop new ideas. You give people some seed money and let them pursue ideas. If they come up with something in the lab that looks promising, then you talk about large amounts of project funding. If they don't, but they try hard and embrace visionary values, you give them another chance.

When I was at Pitt, there were a lot of faculty that had been at Westinghouse and Gulf Oil in the 1960s and 70s, but got turned out in the recessions and had nowhere else to go. When there's a recession, everyone's laying off engineers, and there's nowhere to go for work. Look at where these companies are today, when all their brainpower got shown the door.

You'll say, "people need to stop relying on the Fortune 500". The thing about scientific pursuits - you need large companies to acheive economies of scale on capital equipment, whether it's computer hardware or lab equipment. The other problem, compounded by "ownership society" - not everyone wants to be their own company, negotiating health insurance, managing expenses - they want to add value to an organization and society by focusing efforts on the fields they're trained in.

My friend is a civil engineer and she constantly complains that she has no ability to be creative in her job. It's cookie-cutter work to contract with no room for new ideas or enhancements. Get in, do the job, get out, get paid.

This isn't an environment that fosters the development of new technology, technologists, or scientists. When faced with the choice of pursuing a career path that will guarantee little job security, layoffs, limited funding, and little room for creative expression - I'd choose an MBA over a career in engineering every time.

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