The glamour of engineering

March 9, 2006
Do you work in a glamorous profession?

— Leland Teschler, Editor

Dean Kamen thinks it should seem that way to high-school students who have a head for math and science.

Kamen is a celebrity in the engineering world. His Segway scooter had enough sex appeal to merit coverage on Good Morning America. And he created the First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition so high schoolers would consider engineering as a career.

In a recent interview, Kamen said the motivation for starting First was that "our culture has... convinced women and minorities, in particular, by the time they are 12 years old, that the exciting careers are in Hollywood or sports. So I said, if sports and entertainment drive kids, let's create a program that competes head-to-head with the NBA and Hollywood."

This last comment makes me think it's Kamen who needs his impressions altered, not kids. If I ever have the chance to set him straight, I might do so this way:

Now, Dean, the media doesn't write about athletes and entertainers just because what they do is exciting. When LeBron James earns $4.7 million dollars as a 21-year-old playing basketball, it makes headlines. Ditto for Tom Cruise bringing home $31 million last year. If you really want to compete head-to-head with the NBA and movie stars, as you say, you are bound to lose. No matter how you try to paint engineering, it isn't going to stack up against what top athletes and entertainers earn or the amount of recognition they get. The only way an engineer is likely to get the same level of publicity as a big-name entertainer is by making it to the final table at the World Series of Poker.

But I'm glad you brought up professional sports, Dean, because they make a good comparison with engineering. The average NFL player has a football career of about four years. I know schools that say the engineers they produce only practice engineering for about five years on average. After that, many of their graduates move on to become managers, go into sales, or transition out of the field entirely. An exodus of engineers leaving for more fertile fields after such a relatively brief stint should elicit some soul searching about who is attracted to an engineering career.

Here is another question to ask yourself, Dean: Why do people voluntarily sign up for years of night school to get MBA degrees? It is not because Hollywood glamorizes business careers. In fact, movies generally portray business people as villains bent on destroying spotted owls. And yet, the interest in MBA programs remains healthy.

The answer, of course, is that people think an MBA degree will pay off not in excitement or recognition, but in a bigger paycheck. And that is the crux of encouraging kids to consider engineering, Dean. You see, all you really have to do is show them there is money to be made there. Do that, and you won't have to worry about whether technical work compares favorably with the NBA Finals.

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