Friday, March 2, 2012

Engineering Firms Can be a Drag

I had the great privilege of taking in a 45 minute long keynote speech by Canadian astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, at a teacher's workshop last month.  The speech was about inspiring students to pursue the sciences, and also included an inside look at the incredible career that Dr. Thirsk has enjoyed.  To be clear, the overall message was not "Inspire young students in science and math and they will all become astronauts."  While the presentation did include awe-inspiring visuals of Dr. Thirsk floating in low Earth orbit, the take home message was grounded in reality: science is interesting and can lead to a wide spectrum of promising careers.

But, let's be honest.  No engineering career stacks up against what Dr. Thirsk and his handful of colleagues do. Not more than two years ago, the man at the microphone took part in forty unique science experiments over a six month period aboard the International Space Station.  He ate space food and exercised on specialized zero-g cardiovascular machines for two hours per day (to minimize bone density loss).  For every engineer that can boast about a work experience as rich as this, there are literally thousands who spend their days deciding whether to use three bolts or four bolts to connect parts at interfacing flanges.

What, in the first place, draws engineers to pursue a career in engineering?  Usually, possessing strong math skills and having a comfortable understanding of physics can sway a young student towards the direction of engineering.  However, the desire to work on ground-breaking projects - the first lunar mission, the first nuclear reactor - this is what budding engineers envision for themselves.  Engineers want to have a hand in shaping the technological landscape of the future.  The sad reality is that only so many hands have the opportunity to take part in such shaping.

One could generalize that for the entire human population, the number of truly satisfying jobs are insufficient.  This statement certainly applies to the field of engineering.  Too many engineering jobs consist of trudging along, making something that is 1% better than the previous model.  Deep down, most engineers are not satisfied with pushing yesterday's boundaries forward little by little.  They want to explore new terrain altogether, and, if possible, make leaps forward.

I think that this is why many engineers, particularly those with graduate degrees, can find the leap to industry to be somewhat of a let down.  Their research at academic institutions taught them to explore something new.  Innovation was encouraged, and curiosity often rewarded.  The same, more often than not, cannot be said for engineering jobs in industry, whose only real function is to make money.

A common misconception is that the more high-tech a company's products are, the more innovative its engineers must be.  As a result, young, creative engineers are smitten with aerospace and robotics firms, to name a few.  In reality, a space firm is, for the most part, extremely conservative.  As the stakes are high, the risk associated with projects must be kept very low.  In order to do this, most projects begin with the question, "What worked in the past?" and end with a very similar, though slightly tweaked result.

This sort of approach to engineering can leave engineers uninspired.  In this environment, their creativity is stifled by the notion that new ideas = risky = bad.  After a few years of what may be described as copy/paste engineering, recent graduates may feel as though their skills are not being utilized, and may begin to question their career path.

These thoughts ran through my mind as Dr. Thirsk spoke.  Towards the end of the teacher's workshop, I felt compelled to share my feelings with the very approachable astronaut, with the hope that he would have some wisdom to impart on me, which might reduce my cynicism for the role of the engineer within engineering firms.

I told him that I have trouble urging my students to follow my path into engineering because I feel that many of the industry jobs that await them are relatively unsatisfying.  His feedback was honest, and may be summarized as follows:

Many engineering firms are indeed forced to operate conservatively for a variety of reasons including risk mitigation.  While firms of this type may attract talented employees, they often have trouble retaining them unless they allow them to be innovative at least some of the time.  The tendency for a company to embrace innovation and creativity can be attributed to two main factors: size and philosophy.  Smaller engineering firms usually have less to lose, and can afford to take risks.  That being said, some large companies, like Microsoft, for example, do give its engineers the opportunity to dabble.  The decision to truly foster employee ingenuity is made at the management level.

Dr. Thirsk's response was very helpful for me.  It put my concerns about the engineering profession into perspective.  The kind of engaging jobs that engineers dream of for themselves do exist, but they must be sought carefully.  The guidelines described in his answer are useful for young engineers that are now or soon to be entering the workforce to consider.

Of course, engineers who wish to be consistently challenged may opt for a career in research at an academic institution.  Some engineers find that the sacrifice in pay is more than balanced by the additional richness of the work experience.  This TED talk about flying robots illustrates just how rewarding such careers in research can be.

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