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Theoretically, I’m an engineer January 14, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, societal commentary.
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FrauTech is contemplating how employers are viewing engineers as commodities (my words, not hers).

One aspect of this argument really bothers me: I’ve heard over and over how companies can’t find ‘qualified’ engineers. Friends have mentioned not being able to find people with the right qualifications and training.

From my perspective, it seems that the employers want is an engineer who has both a grasp of the fundamentals as well as someone with specific background and skills. Getting a degree in engineering in four years makes these two things nearly mutually exclusive.

But why?

The goal of (most) universities is to train engineers who can be adaptable to many jobs, hence the focus on theory. This should theoretically be of benefit to the students, especially in light of the current economic situation. It’s obvious that companies don’t care about the long-term job prospects of their employees, so the employees need to be able to have a broad enough background to pick up new job skills in the face of the fact that, with jobs being shipped overseas, they will have to continually reinvent themselves as different types of engineers. Some universities and colleges don’t think this, of course: they want their grads to be competitive and so focus far more on applied aspects of the job. Having a high placement rate means you’re doing something right.

However, the educational institutions that remain theory focused are usually in one of two camps: there is a set of institutions that have such awesome reputations that their students seldom if ever have difficulty finding jobs, while the rest of universities without this reputation may leave their students feeling as though their education was a waste. The students don’t have the benefit of the reputation of their institution, nor do they have the benefit of the applied education that other students have. They remain in job search limbo for a long time, wondering if they should have really considered switching to business.

I personally prefer the theory approach. The grads that come out with a more applied skill set may be able to find a job quickly (at least prior to the recession), but they are essentially trading off instant gratification for adaptability down the road. If they’re taught applications, it’s questionable whether they will have the necessary background knowledge to learn something new, and it may cost them their employment in the long run. Adaptability is essential because otherwise one risks tracking themselves into a dead-end job.

I also think that having a more general background should, in theory, force a company not to treat its engineers (and hopefully other employees) as commodities that can be used and thrown out once the product is developed. It would be nice if companies actually invested in their employees (and thus their own future), but this is highly unlikely in the face of all the outsourcing going on and the fact that there is (and probably always will be) a large subset of students with application-based training.

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1. Chris Gammell - January 14, 2011

I am of the opinion that schools go with the theory-teaching route not to have a broad spectrum of opportunities, but instead because the focus is on higher level education. If you’re training 20 engineers, and are assuming 18 will go on for a Master’s or PhD, then you’re less likely to teach applicable skills (and instead focus on a solid theoretical base so skills can be learned later). The problem is, preparing engineers for an academic type career is quite different from an industry type career.

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mareserinitatis - January 14, 2011

I’d say this is far less true in engineering than in something like physics. In engineering, most professors realize that 90% of the students have no ambition for an advanced degree, so I think if they’re doing it, it’s not intentional. It’s just that a lot of them have never worked in industry and may or may not have a good idea of what’s really needed for a career. My MS advisor worked for Ma Bell for a couple years before going back to school, so he had an idea of what things were useful in industry. (So, unlike you, one of the first pieces of equipment I worked with during my engineering education was a network analyzer.) 🙂 On the other hand, he talked frequently about how it was important to know the mathematical basis of electromagnetics because *every* problem you deal with is going to be situationally dependent such that some aspect of the problem is different from any of the previous ones you dealt with. If you don’t have a good theoretical background, your method will be to pick the same hammer even though what you have is not a nail but a screw…and that obviously is inappropriate for the situation.

I’m not sure how it worked where you went to school, but the upper-level classes at NDSU become a bit more practical, from an engineering perspective. But I look at one of the students who worked for my husband. He had a whole lot of experience working on sensors as an undergrad. His senior design project was on bio sensors. He really loved that type of stuff, but the only job he could find was in power.

Another example: my husband did his BS and MS in computer engineering, but he decided he really wanted to go into RF or emag. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t get someone to hire him for a job in that area. That’s what ultimately pushed him to get his PhD. (And, obviously, that made a difference for him.)

If you focus too much on applications, you take away the flexibility for someone to adapt to the job environment. And if you make them spend four years working in a very narrow field to learn some very subfield dependent skills (which is what you’d have to do for it to be practical), you unnecessarily limit their options outside of that subfield. If there are more engineers looking for a job in that area than there are jobs and they are one of the unlucky ones, then they’ll be stuck with a really useless degree.

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2. Fluxor - January 14, 2011

I agree with Cherish. Obviously, the ideal is to have a good mixture of theory and practice, but in a limited four year program, I’d lean more towards theory than practice. A good foundation is also what I look for in hiring new grads. However, I will say that my work tends to lean heavily on theoretical concepts.

Too much theory, though, can really discourage students who wonder when they’ll ever get to apply that stuff. For me, I went to a school with a co-op program for undergrad, which meant it was a 5 year program instead of the standard four. Out of 56 months of undergrad, I spent the standard 32 months in class and the remaining 24 months working. No breaks. But it also meant I got to get my hands dirty at several companies doing some very different things.

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3. FrauTech - January 14, 2011

Wait, there are engineers out there actually graduating within four years? I have friends now having trouble even getting internships in this economy but yes I think Fluxor and Cherish have hit on the perfect combo maybe of a theoretically focused undergrad combined with work programs. But then, sometimes I think even that is not enough. Perhaps I’m biased as mechanical always seems to me to be an especially broad degree.

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Fluxor - January 14, 2011

Four (or 5) years wasn’t enough for me. That’s why I ended up pursuing a graduate degree. I really felt I knew squat coming out of undergrad.

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