I have recently earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering degree from Virginia Tech. Our department is one of the best in the country and I am contemplative of my experience over the past 5 years and the impacts and effects that this degree has had on me. How has it impacted how I problem solve? How has it impacted how I view the world? And are these changes due to the requirements of the curriculum or the opportunities on beyond the curriculum that I chose to take advantage of?
I ask these questions because in the discussion about reforming the education system of this country there is a lot of focus on engineering education and how to best prepare engineers for the dynamic and fast paced world that they are entering upon graduation. There is talk about creativity, and generating intrinsic motivation. There is talk about the top traits that companies want to see in engineers and what should engineering institutions be focusing on when teaching an engineer. There are rumors that our centralized system of education is not the most effective and is in need of a radical overhaul.
I spoke with a recruiting agent from Ford Motor Company several weeks back and was struck by her answer to my question “What trait do you most want to see in a prospective engineer when going through the hiring process at Ford?”. I was expecting to hear that they were looking for creative engineers that could think on their feet and generate unique solutions to problems that the plant faced. Perhaps I expected to hear that it was important to have demonstrated leadership skills during your undergraduate degree and have the ability to be a good team player. Instead the answer I was given was simple “We are looking for someone who has the technical skills required for the position we are trying to fill. The rest we can teach them on the job”. She shared with me that while leadership experience and creativity were important it was more important that the engineer they hire have the technical know-how to solve the challenges expected in the position they are filling. She mentioned that leadership skills and other less tangible skill sets will quickly make themselves apparent during the first few years on the job. If they exist then the candidate would be considered for promotion.
This reminded me that while we can romanticize the image of the “engineer” as a problem solver of the continuously striving against the grand challenges it may be more accurate or common to refer to the position as a highly specialized technical trade. A welder has the technical skill to permanently attach two pieces of metal. An engineer has the technical skill to apply problem solving skills to his area of expertise and uncover the root cause of an issue.
Is there a disjunction between what academia is trying to create and what industry needs? Perhaps. Looking back at my time at Tech I can categorize everything I did into two catagories; course work, and extracurricular activities. When I talk with recruiters about things I learned, experiences I had, and skills acquired I mostly speak about what I did beyond my coursework. The classes were the foundation, the technical skills I needed to be certified as an engineer who can plug a specialized hole in a process or system. The most valuable experiences during my undergraduate degree were getting the chances to apply my skills on real world problems. I got involved in these problems through Clubs and organizations, Co-op’s, Study Abroad experiences, and Undergraduate Research. I wonder how much different my experience in these areas would have been if I had been required to do them? How would that have transformed the attitudes that people bring to those projects and would it have negatively affected them? I fear it might have. Perhaps you’re an engineer and have similar or completely contrary feelings towards your experience. Either way I would love to hear them.