Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Engineers

Church leaders have long encouraged members to get all the education that they can. And with emphasis on men taking a primary role as providers, and my having four sons, encouraging my boys to get a good education and picking a good career has been frequently on my mind.

My education and career has centered around engineering, specifically mechanical engineering. And I have often wondered if I would, or should, encourage them to pursue engineering as an educational and career choice. Currently my recommendation would be no. There are several reasons why.

The Myth of a United States Shortage of Engineers

The editor at Machine Design magazine has recently exposed this myth for what it is – a big lie. There are tens of thousands of unemployed or underemployed engineers in the United States, with good education and experience. They could be very quickly trained in any specifics of most engineering jobs. Yet they are not being hired in spite of cries about an engineering shortage. Why? Because there simply is no shortage of engineers in the United States.

But why would they lie about this?  To understand this, one must asses who is claiming an engineering shortage, and what benefit they would gain from such a lie.  Those claiming a shortage are business leaders and universities.  Business leaders claim a shortage in order to justify outsourcing engineering services to places like China and India.  What they really mean is that there is a shortage of engineers that are willing to work for a dollar an hour with no benefits (or whatever the going rate is).

Universities claim this shortage because they are experiencing a shortage of incoming students.  These students are not dumb.  They know where the jobs and the money are, and it is not in engineering careers.

A Dim Future for U. S. Manufacturing

Manufacturing in the U.S. has been in a steady decline for many years.  It is becoming increasingly rare to come across people who work at a place that actually makes a product on site.  I wonder if we are entering into an era where the manufacturer will go the way of the farmer as we enter a new age.

Engineering is not as ‘Romantic’ as it Appears.

Designing and building new things is not as easy as most people think.  There are millions of decisions that go into every significant project.  Everyone thinks the can design and build stuff.  ‘Who designed this?’ is a frequent question asked by many who suppose they could have done much better.  If anything does not work perfectly the first time, the engineer is the one who gets blamed for it.  Many fingers of blame point at an engineer.  Credit when anything does work is quite rare.  It should work right the first time, right?

Engineers as Co-workers

One of the possible down sides of being an engineer is working with other engineers.  This is not always a bad thing, but it sometimes is.  Engineers are notorious for being arrogant know-it-alls with low social skills.  Having to work with a team of such people, where consensus is expected, and deadlines are tight, is often not very pleasant.

Well, I really did enjoy my engineering education, and I frequently enjoy my time at work.  But I can not generally encourage engineering as a future career in the United States.  If my little explanations here are enough to persuade you to choose another career path, then you can thank me later.  But if you are passionate enough about becoming and being an engineer to dismiss my complaints, and go through with it anyway, then you probably have what it takes to survive in this field.

18 Responses to “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Engineers”


  1. 1 Eric Nielson April 8, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I might also add age discrimination – as engineering is often thought of as a young man’s profession (and yes both young and man apply).

    Also engineering jobs go up and down with the economy more than many other jobs.

    The source for this comes from the December 13, 2007 issue of Machine Design.

  2. 2 Spektator April 8, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    As a degreed engineer (Purdue MSEE ’81) and an executive in a communications company, there is a definite shortage of experienced engineers. We just filled a systems engineering position after having it vacant for nearly a year. Why such a problem?

    I would have to say the the job market is filled with people who valued the degree more than the education. They thought that the sheepskin was all they needed and could wait for the offers to roll in. That is not what the job market is well positioned for. In these tight times, the person who works to build a career will have many opportunites. Many are not willing to work hard enough to build a good resume.

    I have had the opportunity to teach at the university level. I found that the significant majority of my students were only interested in what they had to do to get a reasonable grade. I found few engineers-to-be that were willing or interested in really learning the profession and, sometimes, sacrifice to get where they want to be.

    Engineering has been a delightful occupation. I have had the great experience of conceiving, designing and building something tangible and valuable. I have a the opportunity to be part of a dynamic industry that offers challenges and reward. I wouldn’t trade it for any other career.

    Spek

  3. 3 Manuel April 8, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Engineering (Manufacturing and Civil) job placement stats at BYU are still some of the highest compared to other majors.

    But I have heard rumors that Mech Engineers are stealing Manuf Engineers positions. Apparently they are a bit too efficient and manufacturing plants take several Manuf Engineers per every Mech Eng.

    I used to work for Johnson and Johnson and they were always on the look for production and quality engineers.

  4. 4 Engineering Services Outsourcing April 9, 2008 at 5:56 am

    All this is confusion has really got the youth in a mess.Its difficult to figure whether pursuing an education in engineering is really worth it when engineering firms in the U.S are outsourcing engineering jobs to countries like India .So is it better to study in India and still work for an American firm or should you go there and struggle to find an under paid job ?

  5. 5 Eric Nielson April 9, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Spek:

    Thanks for your comment. I have enjoyed engineering also. I still get a buzz every time a new machine comes together. I have been very fortunate to have steady employment.

    I think part of what you are saying is that there is a shortage of the ‘superstar’ engineer. If we take a comparison with something common and objective like sports – say basketball (Purdue has a good history in basketball right?) So some might say there is a shortage of Hall of Fame players available, or All Star players. And there are. Even with as much as professional athletes get paid. I do not think engineering is the only profession where mediocrity is a problem. We can’t all be Thomas Edison.

    But it is not the superstar engineering shortage I am talking about. It is the profession as a whole. I think many companies get tied up in looking for specific experience – like a specific software package for example. What a lot of HR folks seem to be missing is that an engineer that knows the fundamentals can be (usually) easily trained on a few specifics – like a software brand.

    On another point, if there was such a shortage of engineers, why are the salaries not going through the roof? You can not have high demand with a low supply in a free market without the price going up. Engineering salaries are often very modest, and in terms of real value have been going down in the U.S. This does not speak of high demand.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson April 9, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Manuel:

    It is hard to know how hard J&J was really looking. I think that is another problem – matching up engineers with jobs.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson April 9, 2008 at 8:39 am

    E. S. O.:

    Interesting link. I think you are getting the picture, and this is what makes me concerned about the future of engineering and manufacturing in America.

  8. 8 m&m April 10, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Eric, all,

    Thanks for this discussion. I sometimes talk to college students (particularly women) about good degrees to pursue, and this discussion has been helpful.

  9. 9 Eric Nielson April 10, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Women and engineering is an interesting discussion in itself.

  10. 10 Mom April 16, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Eric, I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on engineering as a profession, but I have another concern — We can’t get an e-mail to you the last 3 or 4 we sent have been undeliverable. Are we being blocked out or something? We tried to tell Andrew Happy Birthday but couldn’t. I know Alisa’s filters us out once in a while. We getting down to our last days. We leave Kitale on Apr. 29th. Time is getting short.

    Anyway, know that we are trying to get in touch with you. Mom

  11. 11 Eric Nielson April 17, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I don’t know why you aren’t getting through. I’ll pass along the birthday wishes. (Andy will be ordained a Deacon a week from Sunday).

    We look forward to seeing you this summer.

  12. 12 Martin Searcy April 23, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Eric,

    Will you just start answering the phone when your mom calls? Then she wouldn’t have to try e-mailing anyway.

    Nice to find you on the web. Gus steered Keith and me to this blog. Hope you are well.

    If I’m required to give engineer input– I’m a tweener, between an engineering career and some new career, and back in grad school in a different discipline to be able to have that new career someday. Saw lots of outsourcing changes and weakening of engineering needs at HP/Agilent in my decade or so there.

    Martin

  13. 13 Eric Nielson April 24, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Hey Martin!

    My mom and Dad are on a mission in Kenya. Communication is sometimes a challenge.

    I wish you luck on the whole new career thing.

    I think the outsoursing and weakening needs are happening in any area related to manufacturing. It concernes me.

  14. 14 Martin Searcy May 1, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    “Outsourcing and weakening needs”?!? Oh, I thought we were talking about our experiences with our engineer co-workers, so that’s why I mentioned that I saw lots of “outgassing and weakening knees.” Sorry to have confused you.

    It’s great to know you’re alive, and doing something better than just golfing 24/7. I traded up a few years ago from 24/7 golfing to 24/7 racquetball, and the inspiration I’m now receiving on a daily basis has increased at least a hundred-fold. I’m not sure, but I think the scale of good-better-best goes something like:

    Golf 24/7 -> Lacrosse 24/7 -> Basketball 24/7 -> LDS Blogging 24/7 -> Racquetball 24/7 -> Fishing 24/7 (catch and eat) -> Fishing 24/7 (catch and release, even if too mangled to survive– ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that)

    Kenya is one of those countries where it is light when it is dark here, isn’t it? If so, I suppose the communication from there could be difficult due to awake/asleep issues (not to mention day-to-day toiling for food, rioting factions, refugees pouring in from all sides, disease, etc.).

    What does Becky do with all of her free time? Maybe you could hire her to moderate this blog and keep all offensive things like open discourse from being accepted. Then you would only be left with simple things to handle, like favorite jello recipe submissions. Until last week, I thought there were only three degrees of jellos. But then I tasted the jello concoction from you-know-where, and came to the conclusion that it would eventually no longer have influence over me and would be banished for eternity to a place where no light nor glory shines. And it didn’t look so bad before I ate it. Talk about your “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

    Martin

  15. 15 mormonsoprano July 23, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for visiting my site and leaving such a great comment.

    I know absolutely nothing about engineering. (Well, I know that my brother-in-law is an engineer. He surveys sites for the church all over the world for chapels and temples and makes pretty good money – but he is gone from home A LOT) However, I do relate to the task of influencing our children toward a career path. I have two daughters whom I am continually offering suggested majors of study to. However, I found that if Mom thinks it is cool, then it is instantly NOT cool – therefore, I have implemented PLAN B “reverse psychology tactics”:

    “You definitely do not want to become a pharmacist. It would be a terrible thing to have all those job offers flooding in, and have to choose between them. What would you do? Who wants to go into a field where there is such a shortage that in the next 10 years our nation will reach a crises level for trained pharmacists, as 60% of todays pharmacists will be retiring, while at the same time the baby boomer’s will hit an all-time high need for medical care? Plus, it would certainly not build enough character in you at all to have a starting salary of $100 – 200K straight out of college! In fact, I forbid you to have any kind of medical career path! So there! Instead, I want you to become a musician like me. Yes! You definitely must become a musician. This way, you can spend thousands of dollars on higher education, suffering for your art, spending more thousands of dollars on traveling to auditions and trying to find work, but being continually rejected, and then never be compensated sufficiently for your hours of effort after you do find work. You can then end up working a secretarial day job for the rest of your life to provide medical insurance for your family while you continue your labor of love teaching other lost souls that they definitely want to become musicians just like you!”

    Post Script: So far, my PLAN B (“subversive tactics”) are coming along very nicely. Daughter17 is taking advanced biology courses and considering applying for a Pre-med scholarship next year. Daughter14 is doing a summer apprenticeship in Veterinary medicine. ;)

    Good luck with your boys! – MoSop

  16. 16 Eric Nielson July 23, 2008 at 11:31 am

    A little bitter about the music career?

  17. 17 mormonsoprano July 23, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Ah ha! Why Yes, I see that a bit of my freudian suppressed frustrations reared their ugly head in my last post. :) Of course, my comment was heavily influenced by the fact that I typed it during a 10 minute work break on an incredibly demanding day(and did I mention that I am employed to serve a large group of Pharmacists?)However, (in quieter moments) I am grateful for the music in my life! (“I may be poor, but at least I’ve got my Art!”)

  18. 18 Eric Nielson July 24, 2008 at 7:05 am

    I turned down a music scholarship to Utah State thinking that there was no career in it for me.


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