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.