Engineering: A dead end career?

Feb. 19, 2004
Engineers speak out about engineering as a career: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sherri L. Carmody
Associate Editor

Today, America's workforce is running scared. Huge layoffs and big-business outsourcing to cheaper, foreign labor markets does nothing to boost morale. But does this hold true for engineering, traditionally considered a solid, secure career?

If so, you wouldn't know it from engineering school enrollments. A recent survey by the American Society for Engineering Education reports a 3.4% increase in engineering degrees from 2001 to 2002. While this looks good for U.S. science and technology numbers, an informal survey done by Machine Design reveals many dissatisfied engineers. Overwhelmingly, engineers report fewer jobs that are harder to find, require specific training and experience, and last only five to six years.

Status and recognition are sore points as well. For example, many people have no concept that engineers are behind most tangible things encountered daily, from the car they drive to work to the computer they toil in front of. Sadly, engineering is the "invisible" profession.

Adding further insult to injury is the loose application of the term "engineer" to nonengineers. The person who once was a garbage collector is now a sanitation engineer. Many engineers believe this leaves degreed engineers with no status. Also, corporations see engineering as a necessary evil rather than as an asset or a source of long-term value. Readers report some companies will not give their engineering staffs necessary resources or provide only minimal funding. Many engineers feel such practices arise because the work they do does not contribute directly to the bottom line. Many of them gripe that corporations focusing on quarterly earnings don't see the big picture.

No surprise, long-time engineers tout computers as the biggest change they've seen in engineering. For example, most calculations once done on pocket calculators have long since been relegated to PCs and bigger computers. But though better computers let engineers use higher-level languages to design more complex systems, the basic method of computer analysis has not changed much since the 1990s.

Is engineering a smart career choice? Some engineers feel the profession has lost the luster it once had while others say it's still a valid and satisfying career. But, many readers say companies view them as a commodity. As such, foreign engineers are being imported to take jobs, while more jobs are being exported through outsourcing.

Finally, readers see more corporate value being put on selling and marketing functions rather than on the design and manufacture of products. Considering the level of education necessary for proficiency in engineering, many engineers replied it is not a lucrative career choice. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. While acknowledging that engineering is not a career for the rich and famous, one engineer stated, "I enjoy and take pride in the work I do. I can always come home at night with a clear conscience knowing that, somehow, I made the world a better place today."

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