Thursday, October 26, 2006

Whither the Engineers?

MIT President, Charles Vest, addressed a large crowd a few days ago, discussing the need for more Americans entering the engineering field. As a former engineer, MBA, and budding economist, I was very interested in what he had to say:

To draw more students into the field of engineering, institutions like MIT should focus on the exciting possibilities of two engineering frontiers -- the nano scale and the large systems scale, according to MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest.

Those frontiers offer "mind-boggling possibilities" and "daunting challenges," said Vest during his lecture, "Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond," on Oct. 12 in Bartos Theater.

"As we think about the challenges ahead, it's important to remember that students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement and dreams," Vest told a standing-room-only audience.

Very true. People are indeed motivated by their heart as much as by their heads. Despite common misperceptions, engineers are not exception to this.

[E]ngineering institutions should avoid focusing solely on lecture-based courses and ensure that students participate in team projects, research and experiential learning. Students should also learn communication skills and gain understanding of ethics and social responsibility, business organization, innovation and product development, in addition to engineering fundamentals, Vest said.

I fully agree with all of this. Some of the best counsel I got when I was co-oping at DuPont during my junior year of college was when one of the other engineers told me: "Every engineer is good at math. What will set you apart is your ability to communicate -- both written and spoken." This has indeed been absolutely true in my own career.

What he said next particularly caught my attention:

In recent years, the number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States has been declining, while the number grows in Asia. Students in Asia are increasingly eager to learn engineering, which they see as a path of upward mobility, Vest said.

Maybe fewer Americans go into engineering because we see other avenues to upward mobility and/or are happy where we are? I think it simply boils down to Americans not having the same level of incentives to enter the field.

"We in the U.S. should let no grass grow under our feet," he said. "The U.S. is still the clear world leader, but of all the enemies our country faces, complacency is the one I fear most."

Cool! We're the world leader!

The Senate is now working on legislation that would invest in making the United States more competitive with other nations when it comes to science and engineering education. The National Competitiveness Investment Act is based on recommendations from a recent federal report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which argued that science and engineering education is vital to U.S. economic interests.

Uh... didn't he just say we're the world leader? How does the leader become "more competitive with other nations"? Doesn't this imply we already are? I must be a little confused...

Vest said he is heartened to see the federal government take such steps to encourage more young men and women to pursue degrees in science and engineering.

I don't think any government program will have more than a small impact on more people entering the engineering field. When I decided to study Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, I took into account the financial rewards, expected working conditions, future opportunities, and intellectual challenge. Government programs were no part of my calculus and I have never met anyone who entered for other reasons. Incidentally, I left because I didn't feel challenged or look forward to the prospects of other jobs in my industry. Again, a government program formulated in DC wouldn't have swayed me much at all.

If we didn't have enough people entering the engineering field, wouldn't salaries start to increase? If salaries started to increase, wouldn't more people enter the engineering field? Hmm...

My guess is that there are a roughly optimal number of Americans entering the engineering profession to meet industry demand. Unfortunately, that number is not as high as deans of engineering schools or university presidents would like it to be.

1 comment:

thought said...

I agree that the natural mechanisms of the market will do most of the work to assure the optimal number of engineers.

As for any Asian advantage: I think the answer is simple: people in Asia are less spoiled and are willing to work harder and make the sacrifices to become engineers moreso than many Americans.