Seeking student's perspectives

I’m overseeing a group of young engineers, and their different backgrounds show me some important trends. I admit that I’m a little biased on the matter, because my own background has also set me up for success in certain ways. Let me ask my questions first and then I’ll explain later.

How did you become an engineer?
Perhaps it was a mentor or a guidance councilor who fit your abilities to the academic qualifications, or perhaps you had a screwdriver in one hand and a multimeter in the other, ever since you were little.

How much training do you expect from an employer?
Once you finish school such as university or college, you might believe you are ready to produce work, or you might believe you are only just starting to learn. If your employer can’t afford to offer you training, how would you react?

Do you see a career in engineering as a way to succeed in life?
It’s certainly great to earn a professional’s salary, which might be satisfying to you, or do you get more out of the career than that?

That’s enough questions for now. I’m not sure how many answers I’ll see, but if there are many, then I’ll try to explain what’s driving these questions I’m asking.

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  1. Was good at science and math in high school, and was encouraged to study engineering by teachers and counselors.

  2. Never really expected formal training from employer, and like others of my generation learned “on the job”, sometimes taught some things by older engineers standing over machines or at old-school pencil and paper drawing tables, and very occasionally by attending a class. As professors in college told us, you are here to learn how to learn - figure it out. If an employer can’t pay me to figure it out by whatever means necessary, then either the problem isn’t important to them to have solved, or I’m in the wrong company.

  3. I like solving problems and fixing things so that they work…so for me it’s been a great career for some 35-ish years now. I’m not so sure there are as many career opportunities today as there were when I started, for industrial engineering (aerospace was my degree) and R+D. Probably will always be jobs in the civil side of things…

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  1. Quite a lot of the screwdriver/spanner/multimeter thing. Given my ruthers I’d have done Physics, not engineering, but I discovered that if I did engineering I could get my employer to pay for it. I was sick of being reminded how much my school fees were.

  2. I’ve been learning my whole life. I did one year rotations/training before uni, 2 long internships (3 months) with the same company, and 1 year after graduating I was still nominally under training although in practice I was in the department where I was expecting to work. Then that department got downsized. Yes I expect formal training continuously.

  3. I’ve mostly enjoyed myself at work and if I don’t like the job I’m in I get a new one.

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Thanks for giving my questions a “test drive”!

Of course judging by the title you can tell that I am looking for students to answer (not old farts like us).
I also plan to ask these questions among the young members of my department staff (who aren’t students but are mostly new to engineering). Some of them have opened up on this before, but not all, and it may help to compare the answers when asked the same question.

Another question I am thinking about asking them:

How many hours per week do you spend in your spare time studying or working on technical matters?
It could be fixing your own car, painting your bathroom walls, or reading the IEEE Spectrum magazine or all of the above.

I think that question also leads to discussions that point in the direction my thoughts are going.

Old fart here . . .

I spent my early teenage years working after school and in summer at my Dad’s 3-bay Shell Service Station, kerosene/fuel oil tanker truck for home deliveries, and his HVAC contractor business. I did a lot of the screwdriver/spanner/multimeter thing as I wanted to see how things worked and to fix anything that was broke.

About this time, Dad became an alcoholic and slowly lost every business he had. I started working full time as a cook in a steakhouse my last 2-3 years in high school. During summers, I also worked the mornings in an ice cream plant. I lived frugally and saved most of my earnings. My wife (9th grade girl friend then) was frugal and a hard worker too.

Dad wanted to be an Engineer, but he said there was no financial support from the family, so he got into the businesses he was in through the “school of hard knocks”. His Dad was pulled into a cotton gin and killed when Dad was 2 years old, so his Mom raised 3 kids on her own after that.

I did good in science and math in public school. I won the “Chemistry Award” my senior year.

During my senior year, there was no financial support from the family, Dad drank it all. At graduation, I won a local scholarship and an Alcoa Grant. That plus my savings, and I also kept working every summer at the steakhouse and ice cream plant, I paid my way through college.

I started out wanting to be a ME with a HVAC concentration, but Dad suggested I consider a ChE degree, so I did. Luckily, the company I hired on with had a great training program. Plus, I almost got an MSChE in process equipment design at a local college going at night, but I was transferred before I could get the sheep skin.

I have self-learned whatever I needed to, to get the job at hand done! I firmly believe “knowledge is power!”

I’ve been in process, production, projects, and HR. I hated HR. I listened to union grievances 2 days a week, was on the contract negotiating team, and hired and fired people. After 1 year I went back to process. If the company had not accomodated me, I had a job lined up with another company. A wise man told me, “life is too short to be unhappy”. Surprisingly, he was my HR boss. I’ve always been an open book to my bosses. Some would say that is not wise, but it has worked for me.

So, I’ve been enjoying work for about 44 years now (minus 1 in HR). I always went where the company wanted me. Eight transfers/moves, 5 U.S. states, and 2 countries besides the U.S. I loved it!

Who knows, maybe I’ll retire this year.

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I’m not spending nearly as much time at work as I used to; I’m really kind of winding down, trying to divest myself of responsibilities and “forcing” the rest of the team at my company to pick up the slack - in anticipation of retiring here in the near future. But I still busy myself in my spare time working on pet projects and learning stuff - latest thing being a 3d printer that I’m learning to use.

But as a kid…I loved reading technical journals and science magazines, reading historical accounts of engineers and scientists, or (once in college, and afterwards) doing research on problems that came up. As a mechie/aero engineer, who moved from large corporations with lots of technical staff skilled in areas I wasn’t familiar with (electronics, software, etc.) to smaller companies without any software or electronics gurus to help, I did a lot of self learning in those subjects, finding ways to create the tools needed.

Well, actually, I kind of did that even on my first and second jobs, where support was available but I didn’t have the clout to request/demand/get support from the grey hairs (or was told the idea wouldn’t work, or similar “not invented here -isms”), and instead figgered it out on my own. As an example, I needed to determine if ultrasonic cleaners would penetrate and produces cleaning action internal to metal parts submerged in the cleaning tank. So, needed an ultrasound sensor or microphone that could be submerged…not a cheap device. But for about the price of a beer or two, I built my own ultrasonic pressure sensor from a Radio Shack piezo buzzer hooked up to some amplifier circuitry I cobbled, along with an o-scope to measure it…it mostly worked for what I needed it to do. After about an hour or two in the tank, it would get fried, but it was cheap to build and replicate, and fairly easy to calibrate once I figured out a method. It’s funny, because when I would report my conclusions, it would usually anger, then intrigue the grey hairs who’d pooh-poohed my ideas, until I showed them the data and how it was measured. Gained a lot of respect from people who I thought were much smarter than me.

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How did you become an engineer?
As a youngster, I was around farm machinery and had 2 successful uncles in the engineering field that I “looked up to”. My father earned post WWII & obtained Phd in bio-chemistry (1st Phd graduate at UND) and worked at 1 professional job in pharmaceutical/nutritional research. in high school, I did well in biology, sciences, and not so good in math & English studies. I learned responsibility/accountability at a young age. I saw machinery and had a passion for how it worked.

After high school, I joined USN and worked as boiler tech. Hard, hot, and many long hours of work. But I learned about/memorized the Rankine cycle and associated thermodynamic processes. Maintenance work on turbo-machinery and other equipment really made the decision for me. While in the Navy is when I decided that I wanted to attend college. I took a couple of correspondence courses to improve my math and English skills.
A few years later when I took the ACT exam, I listed 3 possible degrees to complete. Oddly, the results ranked ME 3rd. I provide that test result wrong. I had my sights set on ME and never wavered. What gave me confidence while in college were the EE classes. Such BS professors. I remember talking with my uncle, (PM for company researching lasers) at the time and told him of the difficulties we were having with EE professors. “Ah! Double EEs, I do not trust them. All they see are switches on diagrams and have no understanding of the impact those switches have on process systems as a whole.” Hearing that was enlightening then and a learning experience to rely on during design reviews in later years.

How much training do you expect from an employer?
I had a lot of practical knowledge and skills upon entering the professional ranks after obtaining my ME as I worked while attending the university. A lot of other engineers did not and they struggled. Heck, an engineer w/ 15-years experience did not understand the P&ID symbol for a heat exchanger and did not know the process flow despite the arrows on the P&IDs. If I could, I would have sent him packing right then and there.
My first employer, an engineering led company in the late 80s, had an 18-month engineering training program then. The program was discontinued 2 years later as lawyers and accountants were then becoming VPs and CEOs. I got really bored the last 6-months as I went from dept-dept learning whom, what, when, where. No engineering related matters whatsoever. However, I did have a couple of good mentors during the 18-month training session which really enriched my knowledge and skills.
After 1st professional employer, external/outside training really was diminished. However, I did have good excellent internal resources and co-workers to work with! Nothing is better than having co-workers you truly enjoy working with. Those jobs were fun and great.

Do you see a career in engineering as a way to succeed in life?
Most definitely! I remember working with fellas in their 40s and 50s struggling weekly with their lives and family. In my 20s seeing them struggle really motivated me to seek a better life with education. It worked for me despite the detours encountered in my professional life.

Y’all did good!


Oh, wow, thanks for the stories everyone! I really wasn’t expecting that.
I guess I don’t really know what I expected when I posted my questions.

Since I’ve spoken to several of the young engineers in my department, I could share some of their points of view in return. I’ve been getting a very wide variety of stories. There are common elements but it’s a lot of fun and very engaging to talk about this with them. Well, most of them - there are one or two who are just punching a clock. I’m not on the hire/fire chain of command so I just have to deal with them. Their story is probably the most important to get, but they open up the least.

I became an engineer because I always wanted to be an aircraft designer. I am also a from a traditional farming background (most farming activity done in house, rather than the more modern only core activity’s done in house) work, so make, mend & work to a dead line was much of my teen years.

I did a Bachelors of Engineering Mechanical, but probably taught myself close to the equivalent of an Aero degree as well while at Uni. As grad I was the only engineer on site (but with the chief draftsmen) about 2 months into my first job, on a production restart / translocation. The man office was 5 minutes walk away but first stop for most problems was my desk.

The on the job training was informal, opportunity for formal were limited (this was before Zoom etc) but my personnel CPD would probably be described as a lifestyle, I liked aviation so read everything including text books, went to RAeS lectures, volunteered at an aircraft museum while at uni, and pretty much carried on this level of engagement while I was a grad.

The engineering as a way to succeed in life is question is interesting. If a local asked me, I would say sure but not in this country unless its one of the larger engineering industry’s, otherwise maybe if one comes back as a experienced professional with the networks to work remotely.

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OK I gotta join in now.

How did you become an engineer?
Like others who’ve told their stories, I grew up on a farm. The environment has machines, tools, and vehicles around, making them familiar to me and available to use any time I wanted. Soon, one project led to another, so before I had even graduated from high school I’d built an equatorial mount for my telescope, re-built my bike wheels, made a dozen model planes and rockets, and soldered the boards of an autonomous robot. It drove around my house for a day before releasing the magic smoke.

Going to university came as a disappointment, however. The academic focus didn’t fit with me at all and I quickly grew bored. I was learning math problems but never using math to solve problems. I quit, and restarted my education at a technical college. Worked in shops and drafting offices to pay for school. Snagged a summer internship in an aerospace company and then I really knew what I wanted to do.

I was also lucky to find an employer after school that was really looking for a technologist, not a university engineer, who could draw and turn wrenches and run the numbers and knew the wings from the tail of an airplane. It was a perfect fit for me. I learned the rest by doing it.

How much training do you expect from an employer?
Very little. When I get it, it’s appreciated. I simply take opportunities when they come. I would take the course anyway if they can’t cover it all, or split the cost if they needed me to. I’m such a self-teacher, that formal training only speeds up my learning.

Do you see a career in engineering as a way to succeed in life?
Yes, with risks. I basically can’t “turn it off” which means I can develop skills on my own that belong in both my personal time and work (critical thinking, budgeting, enriching my knowledge, keeping my house in good shape). But the cost of not turning it off is that I employ too much critical thinking when supportive words are appropriate, and reach for technical solutions when the personal touch is needed.

How many hours per week do you spend in your spare time studying or working on technical matters?
10-20. I read tech journals, take online courses in science, math, engineering, and even philosophy and business. I have many personal projects, such as wind-turbines, astronomy, photography, among many other things. I do these hobbies in a technical way, seeking the science and mathematics, not just the art. My wife and I live on a hobby farm, which at first sounds like a bunch of animals, but it also means barns, tractors, trailers, wells, pumps and a septic field, for fun.

Where am I going with these questions?
What do these questions reveal when asked to young engineers?

My intent, as I resolve what I am asking, is to differentiate between two groups of engineers that I’m seeing before my eyes right now.

  1. Some engineers are fascinated by technology and involved in projects that satisfy them personally and professionally.

  2. Some engineers were selected for certain skills at a young age, and followed an education path to arrive at a particular career.

My reason to understand this difference is that I’m getting much more productivity, motivation, and skill from group #1. What’s strange is that the people in group #1 don’t see themselves as engineers, even if they can do the work. People in group #2 think they’re engineers but when they get out of school they are lost for a couple of years. Compounding the problem is that group #2 people aren’t self-teaching in their spare time, and are all thumbs with tools. The only way to improve them is to spend a lot of time supervising their daily activities, and send them to courses. They don’t take courses if not paid for by the company. When speaking about their spare time, they don’t report any interest in building things. Turning back to group #1, these people have already honed so many skills that they spill into their personal lives and hobbies. Their skills become self-perpetuating habits early on.

What I’m thinking:
Start with the same person, and give them the choice between university or technical college.
Taking one path requires 4 years and maybe they get an internship along the way. The other path needs 2 or 3 years followed by an apprenticeship. Then this person could arrive at my office for a job interview. Having taken the university path, they might not be able to help me for a year or two. The technicians are ready on day one to solve problems with reasonable results.

I wonder how many people had some kind of high-low class divide inflicted on their brains which makes them think that engineers are “high class” and to be desired, while technicians are “low class”. Students might not be conscious of it, but what about the mind of the guidance counselor who is steering the group #2 students?

OK I’ve talked up the technicians for a while. The flip-side is that they don’t expect their career to grow. I have open positions that I could fill but nobody qualified applies. I purposefully make the job requirements flexible so that it should invite technicians and technologists. But the only way I can make it work is to poach them from other departments of my company. Anywhere else, these people self-select and don’t apply. When they do get here they’re amazed at how much they can do on day one, and they I open their eyes about their career potential. “Nobody told me that before…”.

Many of you who are replying with your stories are also proving my point. Each of you have defined your origins as an engineer starting before you made the university/college choice. Those of you who chose university benefited from other technical activities that enriched your experience. If your class peers didn’t do the same, they might not have enjoyed from the engineering career choice like you did. It might not have paid off for them like it did for you. And they’re aren’t here posting, you see…

My next point. Universities are letting our youth down. They are teaching them an outdated curriculum based on pure academics, and have lost sight of the purpose of engineering, which is the application of science to the advancement of technology. I may be suffering from a local effect due to the quality of the universities close to me. But then I find this:

American Manufacturing: A New Renaissance? |

A discussion about manufacturing industry trends. It often returns to training and skills gaps that drive productivity gaps. Manufacturers that automate with a mindset that the workers now just baby-sit a machine end up with high turn-over and limited gains in productivity. Manufacturers that cultivate worker skills and then give them high-tech tools to carry out their work see their productivity grow even if they also see turnover.

If you watch the video, note the comments about the “German program” which is a lot like the career path I took. I had to abandon university to do it that way. I had to steer my education to make it happen that way, and then carve out a niche at my employer by insisting “yes I can” at every turn.

In particular I am going to pick on my favorite subject, differential equations. We spent a quite large slab of time learning how to solve differential equations, yet when we emerge blinking into the real world suddenly discover that although describing a system using an ODE is useful, it almost certainly won’t be solvable using closed form solutions. My favorite example is the ballistic trajectory of a mass with aerodynamic drag (v^2). Of course the same is true of integrals as well, trivially easy ones to write down are not solvable. Integral e^(1/x) dx, for example.

Instead we’ll be using a numerical solution 99% of the time. So why did we waste so many hours learning (or failing to learn) something to quite an advanced level that was going to be useless 99% of the time?