The Plight of Older Engineers -

The Plight of Older Engineers

As Jack Ganssle suggests in “Is this a Dead-end Career?” it's true that if you are in your 60s and you still work as a techie, you inevitably will slip on the status hierarchy. But why? Why does a scientist with 30 years experience easily become a highly valued and prestigious member of countless forums and societies and at the same time an engineer with the same long experience in time is often a pill, a nuisance for the people he works with?

Let's consider two key words: science and technology. In general, according to Niels Bohr's definition science discovers new things and technology creates new things. Scientists decipher (i.e., discover) the enigmas of Mother Nature and provide their new knowledge to their closest colleagues — the engineers — who create and build the things that are useful for our survival.

In order to grok why one can become “obsolete” in his or her field, we have to underscore this fundamental difference: the engineer creates the artifact armed with the new knowledge accumulated by science. The pile of this new knowledge grows so fast that often before engineers could take full advantage of it and bring to perfection their novelties physicists overwhelm them with newness and technologists and engineers must start erecting their edifice on a different platform. For example our computers based on the electromagnetic force are still in their infancy.

The late MIT futuristMichael Dertouzos said, “During the 21st century, I expect that we will be able to increase human productivity by 300 percent as we automate routine office activities and offload brain and eyeball work onto our electronic bulldozers. This transformation will happen in the same way that we offloaded muscle work onto bulldozers during the industrial revolution. We have not yet begun to see these gains from the information revolution. Now we click away at our browsers or e-mail screens, squinting our eyeballs and squeezing our brains. In essence, we are still 'shoveling,' but we don't notice, because we are holding diamond-studded shovels stamped 'high-tech.'”

I took dozens of exams on electron tubes in the late '60s. Now I need an FPGA from Xilinx instead of tubes. In order to keep abreast of the latest developments we have to constantly learn. “Engineer” is a great title. These are the guys who create, and “sublime joy comes from the creative process,” said Romain Rolland. If we engineers can preserve our flair for creativity, then ours is a most rewarding profession. Otherwise, it is a dead-end career.

Peter Grigorov
Principal Hardware Engineer
Tyco International

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