Not enough, or too many, engineers?

November 26, 2012

JackGanssle-November 26, 2012

Are you old and in the way? Or does experience count?

In the last few days I've run across two seemingly orthogonal articles about the state of engineering and related fields.

This article on the NextGov web site  cites a study that I can't find that claims STEM education in the USA is not adequate for future needs.

One quote: "While scientific innovation produces roughly half of all U.S. economic growth, the educational pipeline necessary to fill STEM jobs and make that economic growth possible is not readily up to task, the report noted. For example, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics based on an international assessment of 15-year-olds in 70 countries."

While I think that being so far down the scale in reading, science and math is unacceptable, it hardly seems logical to connect that factoid with the previous sentence. It's not hard to imagine other parameters that might have some bearing.

Then there's this: "In addition, jobs in STEM fields are increasing three times faster than jobs in the rest of the economy, yet American students are not entering these fields in sufficient numbers. That means that by 2018, the nation faces a projected shortfall of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree STEM workers, a problem that is compounded by the large number of Baby Boomer retirements, ACT-IAC found."

One is left wondering if the 230,000 shortage is with or without the effect of so many people retiring. Perhaps the study's authors lacked much in critical thinking or math education. And why are "advanced degrees" so important? The vast majority of engineers I know have no more than a BS.

Regardless of these nitpicks, the general thrust of the report mirrors so many other data points I've been coming across. The Bureau of Labor Statistics thinks software engineering will be one of the most rapidly-growing professions in this decade.

The demand for electronic goodies and associated software seems destined to continue its exponential growth, and that demand will continue to create additional needs for more engineers. STEM education here in the USA does seem to be in peril. (Recently I bought 10 gallons of kerosene at $3.99/gallon. The kid who rang me up grabbed a calculator as he struggled with the tricky job of multiplying $3.99 by 10.)

Then there's this story in the India Times online which suggests we old timers--i.e., any engineer over age 40--are unemployable dinosaurs. After listing some of the tech that has become available in recent years the article says, "All of these new computing models require architectures that are very different from those that went before, and what older folk learnt in their engineering schools and training programmes."

Well, duh!. When in the last century has this not been true? Were all mechanical engineers made redundant by Wilbur and Orville's 1903 invention? Did RADAR, TV, ENIAC or any of plenty of fundamental new inventions toss post-40 EEs onto the street? What happens is that engineers are continually learning new things. A college degree is merely the beginning of a professional's education. I think one of the most exciting things about this career is the never-ending learning.

I particularly enjoyed this comment: "freshers learn fast and do things differently, without the baggage of past experience."

As a post-40 (actually, well post-40) engineer myself I'm obviously biased. And I remember at 20-something thinking unkind thoughts about some of my older colleagues. But somehow they always found faults in my systems during design reviews, or had novel ways to cut component costs, or showed me subtle problems that would effect long-term reliability.

Experience is a double-edged sword: get cornered in maintenance and you may get the same experience, over and over and over. But work on a lot of different systems and that experience is something impossible to learn in college. Without the "baggage of past experience" garnered in investigating airplane crashes, for instance, modern air travel would be hazardous indeed. Sans that baggage the entire notion of mentoring doesn't make sense.

The truth is that this profession is completely dependent on experience. But it isn't valued. It can be incredibly hard, or even impossible, to get an engineering job once into middle age.

Jack G. Ganssleis a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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