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Engineering is Elementary

January 13, 2011

An elementary school in Minnesota is turning itself into a Specialty School for Aviation, Children's Engineering and Science. I like the idea of getting kids exposure early on to topics like engineering. But I dislike schools that tend to focus to narrowly on either a profession like this, or often language skills (which can be extremely useful if done well, or reduce the children's math and english understanding if not done well). I find it also kind of disturbing to see trends of pushing more people into the engineering profession. I think it's a great idea to make sure more people know about it and people who otherwise wouldn't have the option of going into it but have the ability or an interest to be able to pursue that but I fear programs like this give parents a false hope of a future stable career.
It's been all over the blogosphere about how there are a lot of PhDs in science. And post-doc salaries, as well as limited geographic choices and people leaving for other careers or not getting any job related to what they wanted would seem to imply we have an overabundance of scientists right now. Yes America, the UK and Canada need more scientists but they also need an industry and government foundation being the dual pillars of support for that innovation. And right now industry has been sorely lacking in this area for domestic development while government is fading away.
A little old, but this article discusses the myth of the engineering shortage. It discusses the H1-B Visa push in the late '90s to support a supposed shortage of IT and technology workers and how increasing education in China and India has meant where once we were competing with them for call centers or low level technician support now many professionals are on the same wave length as a highly skilled foreign workforce. And this opportunity is too much to pass up by domestic companies looking for short term profits. In fact for all the talk about a shortage of STEM degrees the article points out if you remove social scientists and technicans from the STEM umbrella past studies have looked at there has been a 130% gain in STEM degrees over a 20 year period while only a 30% increase in occupation. He goes on to state that given the graduation rates between 1993 and 2002 the US graduates enough workers in STEM to replace the entire STEM workforce every 15 years. Obviously, people don't retire every 15 years so unless there's economic growth at a rate comparable there's no possible shortage here.
Encouragement is not the primary issue assuming you don't care about recruiting minorities or women. According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation 30% of incoming college students state science and engineering as their intended major. Almost half drop out. If half did not drop out, we'd clearly have way too many graduates in those fields to be supported by the economy right now. So why do employers complain? The article discusses what they call the "Monster effect" meaning the job board site. Employers can recruit nationally and internationally and don't need to settle for local candidates. Ronil Hira, Associate Professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology said the following:
"In the old days," he explains, "companies expected engineers to stay around a long time, so they paid for professional development. Now, they want somebody to hit the ground running. They've turned engineers from an asset into a variable cost."
Hira states how this means engineers and IT workers tend to train themselves, and therefore don't focus on specialities that are too specific and not as marketable in a larger job field. The article discusses the disparity present within colleges as well where business expect graduates to be good at project management and communication and so colleges shifted over to focus on these broader more transferable skills instead of focusing on hands-on technical knowledge.
If there was a real shortage, you'd see engineering salaries rising. But instead in the same timeframe average salaries for electrical engineers rose 10% and aerospace rose 9% while management climbed 14% and lawyers 12%. And a whopping 16% of US engineers are foreign born. On the surface this may not be significant, but it's much higher than the 11% of managerial/professional workers in general and I'm sure higher than less educated fields.
Is there a non-cost advantage to bringing in foreign workers? The article includes an anecdote from an employer who brought on at least one US entry level worker and has said he will hire no more because they were more project management focused and could do the actual design and execution of the design that he needed. He compared that worker to interns he brought over from Germany whom he claimed were much more hands on and strong with machine design and tool making.
I'm sure there's some selection bias involved here in bringing over what are likely the top of the crop of German engineering students looking to move to the US versus what might be a local candidate who is not at the top of the US pool of potential engineers. But I also thought of Fluxor's recent post on the disparity between the on paper qualifications of an entry level engineer and their actual design and hands on skill. And there is perhaps something to note in the differences between German engineering (as well as other more hands on local programs) versus highly ranked universities. I've noticed schools that rank higher in the engineering discipline tend to be pretty strong on theory and analysis which makes sense if you're training the next crop of students to be research focused PhDs but less sense if you're training them for the workforce.
I agree with the article's quandary that engineers must now train themselves in these specialized skills whereas 20 years ago companies would generally provide that training for you. I think anecdotally about my own experiences of going out and learning CAD on my own and paying my way through local programs before I ever even started my engineering program. Most of the older designers I work with were taught AutoCAD or Solidworks or ProEngineer through workforce programs that don't exist anymore. When there are a plethora of candidates with these skills that you can pick and choose from, you don't need to train anybody yourself anymore. Even my school learning of these programs along with whatever on the job training I could snatch up was not quite enough to qualify me for a job and a title. The old problem of entry level jobs requiring experience, but how do you get that experience. In a field like design, I feel like I have the skills but because my title isn't what a potential employer thinks it should be it isn't counted. They assume if I actually had the skills I would have managed a title change but there's no incentive from an employer to recognize an employee who pays for outside education or training. Especially if they can get that employee to do the work without the title.
So I think we can assume there is no shortage of engineers. I think we can also draw some conclusions that employers can now be way more picky than before, and that that isn't always fair but it is the reality. Future engineers will have to graduate with a strong grasp of the theoretical fundamentals, communication, writing and project management skills, as well as strong hands on design and machine knowledge. Only so much of this can be learned from University alone and I suspect as time goes on training at community colleges as well as individually motivated on the job training and increased pressure for internships prior to the first full time job will become the status quo.
No longer can an engineer go through college and expect to derive all of her knowledge from that experience but will need to stay knee-deep in school projects, reading some current research and manufacturing papers on their own, self-taught review of the fundamentals for the field in which that engineer decides to apply for jobs, and career-focused technician classes at night. I hope to see some of these hands on programs snatched up by larger research and state universities, but I do not expect it. It is the only way western engineers can remain competitive with their foreign colleagues.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 4:10 am

    The article states that foreign master's and PhD candidates in US school account for 40% and 60% respectively. I can certainly believe that and I suspect the percentages for EEs are even higher. Our entire team, although geographically dispersed between Canada and various US locations, all have one thing in common — a graduate degree. It's not a hard requirement, but given what we do, it's a natural barrier to entry. You can see that reflected in the make up of my work team — foreign born engineers far, far, far surpasses their numbers in society.

  2. January 14, 2011 3:53 pm

    Does it really help in your field though? Seems sometimes a graduate degree is a benefit but then others it's just another line on their resume.

  3. January 17, 2011 2:26 pm

    In EE, masters students definitely have a leg up. PhDs, not so much.

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