Not enough, or too many, engineers? - Embedded.com

Not enough, or too many, engineers?

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. Ganssle is 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.

19 thoughts on “Not enough, or too many, engineers?

  1. I'm post-50 and I think the business has changed considerably in the last 30 years.

    Back then, you could actually learn a considerable percentage of the known universe of computing during an undergrad degree. Now you can only scratch the surface. People c

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  2. The discounting of experience is a fatal mistake. Experience with increasingly advanced systems coupled with continual learning will make for a truly formidable engineer. Yes the “freshers” will have learned the latest techniques in an academic environme

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  3. I think this can be summarized as: too many people pretending to be engineers; not enough REAL engineers 😉

    As for this comment:
    “All of these new computing models require architectures that are very different from those that went before, and what older f

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  4. The biggest problem I've been having with all the articles quoting “the US is way behind in STEM education, at this rank, etc.” is that they are comparing our 15 years old students, which are taken from the pool of all 15 year olds in school, to the 15 yea

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  5. Over the years we keep getting these predictions of engineer shortages. Yet we have not seen real shortages, or real increases in engineer’s income.
    I too remember being an engineer in my 20s. I do remember dealing with a few older engineers that had not k

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  6. In both the articles I see substantial spin at work. The US government is consistently pushing the increase of foregin worker visas by claiming the the american engineering work force is not up to the job. As in too old, not going to be able to compete etc

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  7. The above comments are very true, but I'd like to specifically address your question on advanced degrees. A problem I see when interviewing candidates with recently acquired bachelors degrees is that, by and large, they know nothing useful about the job th

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  8. While an engineering manager, two of the best engineers whom I worked were mere U.S. high school graduates with abundant self motivation, a sprinkling of real world experience, and a willingness to learn. Another fantastic engineer was university educated

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  9. I read an article recently that may shed some light on the STEM controversy. The point of the article was that the middle class is coming back, but in the form of high tech workers, not assembly line workers. The thesis was that we are seeing a transition

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  10. I agree. I am 70 years of retired Electronics H/W design engineer, and still learning. I teach part time at the university to transfer my experience and knowlade to my students. The tools and Technology is Developing But the conceps dos not chance. E.g The

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  11. I am over 60 but still want to work as a design and development engineer although is appears it will never happen. I have several decades experience as an embedded systems developer – hardware and software. I stayed up to date like countless others but t

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  12. Pyeatte: Don't give up, just try a different approach.

    I'm over 50, a self employed contractor/consultant and I've never been busier.

    Find an open source project along the lines of what you want to work in and get involved. There are many projects out th

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  13. I'll turn 65 in January, and at the beginning of this year took a position as senior systems/performance engineer with a company where the average of the engineering staff has to be around 30 or less. I think I am as current with the tech (web, big data, l

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  14. I'm a bit older than you (won't say by how much though 😉 and was in a similar situation. I had to leave Canada for Germany in order to find work. Despite the Euro-crisis Germany is still desperate for good engineers and there are lot's of opportunities

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  15. I have no idea whether there are “enough” engineers. What I CAN tell you is there's certainly no shortage of “HR wizards” and the services they employ who willingly collaborate to make certain the HR guys never have to submit for interview any applicants f

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  16. “we have not seen … or real increases in engineer’s income”

    I guess there are many factors in this:

    1) What do you consider the starting point? If you use, say, 1990 then there probably have been some real increases. If however you use, say 1999/2000 a

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