What do engineers have in common?

While I see many articles concerning new initiatives in STEM education, relatively little is said about the types of duties that engineers perform in the workplace. Any design process has to begin with certain constraints on the finished product, and it seems to me that an informed choice of curriculum and educational methods should begin with an understanding of the skills needed by newly graduated engineers. We live in a rapidly changing world, but are relying on an educational system that is rather dated. Simply doing more of what we’ve always done seems rather inefficient. It is also strikes me as unfair to students to make them endure an education process that is misaligned with their career interests. So I am curious if we can determine the overarching commonalities that exist in the career category we call “engineering.”

Operators of railroad trains, broadcasting equipment, boilers, and aircraft systems have long been given the title of  “engineer.” However, these duties are different from the math-intensive skills that are taught in most engineering classes. Further, just about any activity that involves planning or scheming is now described as “engineering.” I cringe each time I come across the term “social engineer” being used to describe someone who manipulates the emotions and trust of others. Alas, my discomfort with the nomenclature does little to remove it from the common vernacular. So let me be more specific in describing a particular set of engineering functions.  I’m going to identify those who graduate from traditional engineering programs (mechanical, electrical, chemical, nuclear, civil, etc.) as “physical” engineers, or physineers. Central to their skill set is a knowledge of how the physical world behaves.

A story that received a lot of attention at the beginning of last month was Facebook’s plan to open an engineering office in New York City. I have previously expressed some concern over software professionals being called “engineers.” As recently as last week, I was prepared to write a post to argue that the “engineer” moniker has been co-opted to the point of becoming meaningless. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the skills of these software experts, but rather that I believe they solve a different type of problem than do physineers. However, after giving it some thought, I’m of a less dogmatic mindset. Efforts of software engineers, financial engineers, and social engineers do, in fact, share some commonalities with those who work in traditional engineering fields. We just need better naming conventions to describe the duties that each group of engineers perform for society.

The whole naming issue is important because of the disconnect that exists between the skill sets that employers are asking for, that universities are providing, and that students are expecting to learn. A recent article on the Forbe’s website heralded the strong demand for engineering talent, but neglected to point out that most of the job openings are for software engineers. Think that becoming a computer hardware engineer is a closely related safe bet? Sorry, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that software engineering employment will grow at a mean rate of 2.1% per year, the forecast is that jobs for computer hardware engineers will grow at only one-fifth that rate. Additionally, the forecast is for 1.2 million software engineers in 2018, but only seventy-seven thousand computer hardware engineers. Employment opportunities will not be evenly distributed across the engineering terrain. We need to be far more specific in the skill sets we ask young engineers to attain. So I want to look more closely at what engineers (of all stripes) actually do, and how we might better distinguish between their various responsibilities and activities. I’ll proceed with this discussion in my next post.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 6, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    I agree entirely. Not to disparage developers, but I hate how they are lumped in with engineers. And then therefore lumped in with STEM employees. And there’s all this media attention that we need more STEM folks when there isn’t as much demand in the science and math employment sectors. And of course when they say we need more engineers they only kind of “engineer” they are hiring is a software developer!

  2. Posted July 31, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Well i do agree with you about your concerns over software engineers being called “engineers”. The term “Engineer” is related to something doing more physical while on the other hand, software engineers are like IT professionals. Just a thought.