Joel Orr Commentary: The Next Generation

April 1, 2005
COFES2005 - the sixth annual Conference on the Future of Engineering Software - just ended. I haven't had a chance to consolidate my notes or to summarize the many things I learned. But when I try to visualize the event as a whole, one happy thread runs through it: I picture the nine young people who served in various capacities and participated in some of the events

The Next Generation

Dr. Joel Orr
VP and Chief Visionary
Cyon Research Corporation


Ruth, Sam, Nathanael, John, Jason, and Aron are engineering students; Josh is studying electronics; Seth is a photographer; and Aaron is in nursing school. It was a thrill to me, as it was to many COFES attendees, to note their earnestness and passion for engineering. (And not only because eight of them are my grandchildren!)

At the same time, several people pointed out that most COFES attendees are at least in their forties and fifties. Of course, this is true. COFES attendance is by invitation only, and we require the attendees to be senior executives; it makes sense that many are middle-aged.

Seeing the zeal of the young interns moved the hearts of the attendees - especially the older ones. It evokes fatherly emotions of protection and pride, as well as a sense of generational continuity, to see the interns at the start of their professional journey, full of hope and promise.

In one of the sessions, Autodesk's Buzz Kross asked, "What can we do to make engineering more attractive to our youth? We seem to be losing ground."

If America is to regain a leadership position in manufacturing, our engineering schools must increase their output of engineers.

It's quite a challenge. Growing up in a culture that lionizes sports players, movie stars, talk-show hosts, super-models, and the wealthy, adolescents are not drawn to professions that are intellectually demanding. That's why inventor/engineer Dean Kamen founded the FIRST Robotics and Lego competitions - to bring both attention and a smidgen of glamor to the profession, and to allow children to have the experience of doing real engineering work.

FIRST is a model; we need many other activities that address similar concerns. Here are some other thoughts:

  • Vendors might produce video games with strong engineering themes.
  • Make "cool" engineering stories available in up-to-date styled formats.
  • Each vendor should have blogs and podcasts aimed at youth.
  • There are never enough scholarships; vendors should pool their resources to create new ones.
  • Vendors and users alike should have student mentoring and internship programs.

Becoming an engineer is not easy. It takes strong aptitudes for science and math; the ability to cope with large loads of homework; good 3D visualization; attention to detail; discipline; good problem-solving abilities; and patience. Liberal-arts degrees are much easier to obtain.

Some writers believe engineering education today is a form of hazing for acceptance into the engineering profession (The Existential Pleasures of Engineering), and say that engineering education needs a redesign, perhaps a "thinning out" of courses. Personally, I'm not sure. It's worth a study.

If you agree that we need to encourage more young people to come into the engineering profession, do something about it. For example:

  • Volunteer to speak at local high schools on the subject of "Why become an engineer";
  • Seek opportunities to evangelize engineering, through talks and articles;
  • Encourage your employer to support FIRST Robotics and similar efforts;
  • Talk about your work with your own children;
  • Work with your professional society to start and support student chapters in high schools and colleges;
  • Emphasize the importance of verbal skills to your children and other youth;
  • Work on your own engineering projects, together with your kids and their friends.

Internationalization and offshoring are facts of life in the United States today. A growing population of young engineers is what America needs to get back on track. You and I can make it happen. Let's do it!

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM Monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site:

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