By John Dodge
Posting in Design
Yesterday, I watched my 85-year-old uncle cut up a cheap tarp to make seat covers for some wet chairs at a outdoor family gathering. He went about the...
Yesterday, I watched my 85-year-old uncle cut up a cheap tarp to make seat covers for some wet chairs at a outdoor family gathering. He went about the task like the engineer he has always been, measuring twice and cutting once.
It's been said writing, reading and projects like this keeps the mind sharp in old age. Besides clean living, a doer mentality and good genes, I wondered if his chosen profession of civil engineering has contributed to his mental acuity and overall well-being. He has always timed his hamburgers on the grill with a stopwatch. It's the same with boiling lobsters. He's was a master of the slide rule before calculators. As a B-24 navigator in WWII, he often got his crew safely back to base using celestial navigation.
To him, numbers, calculations, measurements, problem-solving and high standards make the world go `round.
I bring this up at a time when the nation is woefully short of engineers. Actually, it has been for decades and as editor in chief of three engineering magazines during the past five years, I wrote about the engineering shortage a lot. No number of school programs and events like the First Robotics Competition to make engineering exciting seem to be reversing this decades-long trend.
Here's the stats: for 30 years, colleges in the U.S. have graduated no more than 50,000-100,000 engineers in a single year while China comparatively now cranks out an estimated 250,000-600,000. What constitutes an engineer in China, for instance, varies, but the gap is so large, alarm bells have been sounding for a long time.
Educating engineers is the way developing countries become industrial powerhouses. India, Korea, Taiwan, China and some eastern European countries are great examples. They focus on design, innovation, manufacturing and building as opposed to cranking out lawyers and MBAs.
Here's the problem. A college degree in engineering is among the most challenging so the attrition among students is high. There's a double whammy, too. With the bar set so high in school, students also see engineering projects sent off shore with engineers here losing their jobs. As a result, they steer clear. Engineers I have worked with are cynical and been laid off more than once.
Indeed, my wonderful uncle got his degree in 1950 from RPI when engineering was seen as a revered profession that would build our Interstate highways on which he worked. They would land Americans on the moon and set off the electronics revolution with the transistor and microprocessor soon thereafter.
I love the way my uncle works and thinks (he would be embarrassed if I used his name...the greatest generation was, among other things, humble). Engineering back then was in full flower, rebuilding America's infrastructure that had been gutted by the war. His is an engineer's mind and in his advanced years, the profession he chose is still paying dividends.
Jul 19, 2009
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Nice article!! Having been an engineer now for nearly 30 years, I have to admit I am still totally in love with my profession. Yes, there have been difficult times, yes I have been laid off, but darn it, I love it. For the last seven or eight years I have been fortunate enough to be working on a freelance basis as a consultant. In this role I have had the opportunity to come into contact with many young engineers. The sad truth is that the state of their education is appalling to say the least. Most of them have no understanding of what they are doing. They have been taught engineering more or less parrot like and lack an appreciation for what it is really all about. The profession itself is, in my opinion, in dire straits. There are simply not enough people being trained and those that are being trained have often selected engineering as a second or even third choice. While I agree wholeheartedly that you should do something that you find stimulating, I think that engineering as a profession "undersells" itself badly. Certainly where I originally come from (South Africa) this is definitely the case. Kids today go where the glamour and the money is, and it's not in engineering, sad but true, and therein lies the problem. Until engineering is seen to be a "glamorous" profession and until engineers earn what they are really worth, things will not change. As an earlier poster noted, Government replaces engineers with "scientific advisors" on the basis that they can do engineering. Mmmmph. I have seen enough design work done by academics to last me a lifetime. The premise is definitely badly flawed. :) Anyway, complaining was not the aim of this post, the aim was to say that I love my profession and I make a point of telling people (particularly young people) that at each opportunity that I have. BTW, my father is also an engineer and at 80 his mind is still as sharp as a pin. He shuns using calculators like the plague!! I definitely think there is some kind of link... Long live the Engineers!!!
I don't know what sort of guidance about their choice of profession young people get today. I do know that my father encouraged me to choose one that I might enjoy and that might do my fellowmen some good. Although quite good in math, I chose the humanities. A number of my colleagues, however, chose various types of engineering. At our 50th high school class reunion this past year, I was surprised that so many of my "engineering" friends had been _very happy_ in their career choices. I'm certain they did not choose their field because they felt a national need for engineers. Whatever self-motivation they might have had, they must have been encouraged, perhaps challenged, by their high school teachers and university faculty. What sort of encouragement, challenge, or other incentives are our students getting now? Then too, our role models were perhaps quite different then.
"He went about the task like the engineer he has always been, measuring twice and cutting once." My father, an organ builder, taught me that practice and as a retired engineer I still use that technique. As a mechanical and electrical engineer I often worked with civil engineers and found much in common in our logical approach to problems. In the UK as in USA the engineering professions are neglected. Our Government has decided that they do not need an Engineering Adviser since they have a Scientific Adviser who it is alleged can cover engineering though as an academician he has never done any engineering.