Training an Engineer

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.

3 thoughts on “Training an Engineer

  1. I also received my B.S. in ME from Virginia Tech and also got the chance to do a co-op, internship, undergraduate research, ASME and etc. and can definitely relate to what you wrote in your blog. I just talked to my advisor, who mentioned it to me that ASME has done a survey where they have asked many companies across the US something in the lines of: ” What kind of education should the universities provide to future engineers, in order for them to become good candidates for industry jobs?” , The answer was very similar to yours: “The university should not change the core of the existing curriculum, they should simply focus on teaching the fundamentals of technology”. I personally think that learning the fundamentals is not enough. There has got to be the extracurricular activities. Without them, academia would simply produce “machines”, not future leaders. I feel that some sectors of the industry want just that: “machines”, people which will focus on one single task and will avoid drifting away and spending time on generating ideas. From industry point of view, upper management should be responsible for coming up with the ideas and the engineer should execute them. In reality that is why one set of people have a B.S. and go directly to industry and another set have M.S. and PhD. and have the option of going either to academia or industry where they would normally obtain research position.

    • It is interesting to hear about information about this topic directly from ASME and Industry in an official survey. Do you have access to that survey? I would love to review its findings in more detail and see what conclusions they drew from it.

      I have heard engineering referred to as a technical trade. Welding is also a technical trade. Instead of flipping the hood down and joining two pieces of steel with lines of electrically heated metal engineers flip out the notepad and combine equations with lines of lead. All engineers that graduate from a particular accredited degree program are supposed to have the same skill sets just like all welders with the same certification are capable of welding the same types of welds.

      I totally agree with the need for the core curriculum I simply got frustrated at times when I felt that the most effective learning environments were the ones that I wasn’t getting credit for. Perhaps that is the nature of the beast. Perhaps it’s the struggle with that beast that keeps us fighting. Currently the student must gather the skill sets necessary to rise above the “Machine” on their own. It’s not a requirement. If it was would your definition of the “Machine” change? And does it need to as today’s world becomes inundated with apps and automation?

      I would caution you against using the M.S. and PhD. as measures of an individual’s ability to rise above that “Machine”. I have known a great number of Undergrads who like me participated in all types of extracurricular activities but did not choose to go on to grad school. Many of my friends now find themselves in positions that let them challenge the norm, generate Ideas, and drive innovation within their companies. A M.S. or PhD. may help you find your way into a position like that but I don’t feel like it is a requirement. In grad school as in undergrad it’s the application of the material that creates learning. For me most of that application still happens beyond the classroom doors.

  2. I was not able to find that ASME survey ( This is what my advisor shared through a conversation), but maybe you fill find this one more interesting:
    http://files.asme.org/asmeorg/Campaigns/MS/2012/32754.pdf?channel=METODAY&Campaign=ME-STUDY?cm_mmc=METODAY-_-ME-STUDY-_-Email

    It summarizes the following as stated in the survey:
    •• Level of optimism toward the profession
    •• Changes they anticipate in the work environment
    •• Significant achievements they believe the engineering field could provide to meet global
    challenges
    •• Fields and disciplines most likely to gain prominence
    •• Tools and techniques that are becoming more important and to what degree engineers
    know about working with them
    •• Professional and personal skills likely to become increasingly fundamental to
    professional success

    It was never my intention to say that M.S.and Ph.D.would allow you to rise above the machine, I mean look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both were dropouts and look at all they have achieved.. Even people that hold a PhD might decide to become the “machine”, to simply work on a very specific task and utilizes his/her skills on a small part of a greater project. Some find that this is enough and that is perfectly OK.I personally do not see myself doing that for the rest of my life. I do think though that staying for grad school expands the horizons of students and helps with the realization that the “machine” model does exists, and hopefully prepares future students with the notion that they might have to face it. As you said: “The student must gather the skill sets necessary to rise above the “Machine” on their own”. I just think, having those extra years spent in grad school,might help with this skill set.

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