Engineering Parents Say The Darndest Things

“I wouldn’t suggest engineering as a career path for my child.”

So you’re an engineer. Maybe you have been for a long time and you have put up with a lot of grief. But still…Would you really tell your kid not to go into engineering?? Apparently 1 out of every 3 electrical/electronic engineering parents or so are. And while these numbers are better than the ridiculous ones I had first thought they were (more like 2 out of 3), they are better than the numbers coming from non-engineering parents (only 20% encourage their children to go into engineering, though it is likely ignorance). I can’t stand it. Why? Because it’s followed by stories about the US not having enough engineering talent. Then that story is followed by a story about H1B visas. Then THAT story is followed by a commentary about someone lamenting the situation with international workers. But it’s worst when I see it on message boards and comment sections and on blogs (see all the comments on the survey page and just about any other article on EDN or EETimes these days). Then I realize it’s not a statistic. It’s actually people telling their kids why they shouldn’t go into engineering.

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So, let’s be scientific about it (engineerentific?) and look at both sides. Obviously, I’m biased about why parents shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing. But I think there are some significant implications if engineers aren’t cultivated from a young age by those who know the profession best.

First, let’s look at your arguments against your child going into engineering:

  1. “Business is all about finance and marketing these days!”
    • Oh yeah, it’s true. Marketing is everywhere and it’s important. I take personal interest in it and bug my friends about personal branding all the time and why I think it’s important and all that stuff. But without a product, there isn’t anything to sell. Nada. Without a product to sell, the bean counters and the brokers on wall street no longer have a job. Without them, everyone loses confidence in the company (for some reason) and everyone is laid off and jobs are shipped overseas or everyone shuts down. End of story. A sub-argument here would be that we need people to package and brand products that are made overseas and that the marketers can continue to do that. Well, that’s true…but eventually the overseas producers are going to figure out that they can come up with and market the products too. Then it won’t just be engineers asking,”Where’d all the jobs go?”
  2. “Engineers aren’t paid well enough!”
    • I can only imagine this would be a complaint among engineers that move up in the workplace and see other educated people continue to move up in salary for non-engineering positions. Sure, if you look at the top of the management field and the top of the engineering field, there are differences at the top. But fewer professions provide the pay that engineering offers directly out of school (with only a 4 year degree). After that, yes, you have to work harder to get to the top of the pay-scale. If  it worries you that much, go get an MBA and try out middle management.
  3. “There’s too much global competition!”
  4. “They will never be in charge!”
    • I would guess disgruntled engineering parents use this reasoning because of timing (an engineer who is 50 might have a child entering college, but if they are still an engineer they may not be “in charge”) and because engineers get frustrated being told what to do; it’s a conflict of roles when a person gets to define how a system is built but not how much money they can spend on a widget going into the machine. However, in order to maintain a technical career sometimes you have to let others do some of the managerial tasks; it’s a sacrifice that is at least in some ways necessary if you want to maintain control over technical aspects of a project. To the ones who fall under this category and wish to do it all, I would encourage you to start your own company; then encourage your children to do the same. One profession that will always have job openings is entrepreneur-ing and there are no greater sources of jobs than small businesses.
  5. “I’d rather my child be a _________.”
    • I know I’m kind of shouting into the void here, but do you hear yourself? No? OK, close your eyes and imagine YOUR parents telling you this. How do you feel? If there is anything an engineering parent should do, it is warning a child against potential pitfalls in an engineering education and career (“Those double integrals can be real stinkers!”), not steering them off on an alternate course. Tell them the truth about engineering, the ups and the downs. And if there are a lot of downs, maybe take a step back and consider why you are still in engineering.
  6. “My son isn’t interested in science!”
    • Well what about your daughter? Besides the fact that there is education assistance for women in engineering and support throughout the educational process, research has shown that more and more women are following in their father’s footsteps (we’re assuming here that the father is the one talking about their son’s disinterest). My friend Elaine can go toe to toe with any other engineer out there and I can personally attest to the fact that she helped me get through college. Women do great things in engineering and cutting off your daughter from that greatness could rob her and the rest of the population of her future potential.

OK, I’ve changed your mind, right? You decided you want to encourage a young potential engineer. What do you say? What are some reasons you should be encouraging your child to follow in your footsteps?

  1. “You get to make stuff!”
  2. “You get to make stuff!”
    • How fun is that? You get to design stuff that will be used by other people! You get to make something that could last longer than you will on the planet! (hopefully as a useful product, not in a landfill). You get to wake up everyday and say “I can do anything. I can make anything. If I can imagine it (and the cost is feasible), I can build it.” Hey, if you aren’t excited about the prospects of working on new products, it’s cool…we can always ship your job somewhere where they’re excited to do that kind of work (and do it at a discount). But if the prospect of making a product excites you (it should, or else you might be reading the wrong blog…), then you should pitch this idea to children who could end up as similarly excited engineers.
  3. “Don’t worry, you can be happy without money.”
    • Wha? Money doesn’t make people happy? Well, no, it doesn’t, and there are lots of studies to prove it. Sure, it makes things a little easier than NOT having money, but beyond meeting your basic needs, more money does not equate to more happiness. You don’t have to belabor this point, because it won’t sink in with kids. Instead, emphasize things that do matter: helping people, living simply, taking joy in your work, trying to change the world, connecting with friends, etc. All these are valuable life lessons and things that will help them in life and in their career (it won’t hurt them to develop those engineering soft skills either!). They will hopefully figure out the money thing later on when they are enjoying the finer aspects of life.
  4. “You won’t be doing the same thing every day!”
    • This is what sold me on engineering. When I was sitting around in high school, trying to plan out a future and really not having any clue what I was doing, I decided I didn’t like being bored. So that was criteria number one. I wanted something where I could do a lot of different things and not sit behind a desk without any hands-on activities. Some job or calling where I would have to keep learning and keep figuring stuff out every day. I know there are a lot of jobs that really do fall under this category, but I obviously didn’t realize it at the time. What I’m trying to say here is that you are more likely to be expected to be an expert on lots of areas as an engineer (technology, science, business, etc) and that will keep you on your toes. And I like that.
  5. “My child, look at the big picture.”
    • If you can go to work every day and feel that you are accomplishing something that is good for you and your community (local or global), then that should be what you encourage your children to do. As an engineer, I would hope that you feel engineering provides the greatest chance to feel satisfied with how you are contributing and that it makes it worth putting up with all the things people complain about in engineering. Engineering can lead to great technical careers, great management careers or careers having nothing to do with engineering. The skills learned are invaluable in myriad professions, so there’s no downside to getting an engineering degree (OK, maybe cost).

OK, so there it is. Two sides of the argument, all presented to you with the skills I learned in engineering school: unarguable logic (10(b) + 10(b) = 100(b)), beautiful prose (technical writing was taught but haikus were my forte) and massaging of data (the hyper link is the new pie-chart). See? TONS of useful skills!

Ah, and now for a bit of perspective. I have been an engineer for 5 years now (counting co-ops). That’s not much, it’s true. However, I am a continual optimist and I believe that I will continue to enjoy being an engineer (hell, I write about it in my spare time). I also believe that engineering will continue to offer the best option for graduates in terms of career fulfillment, compensation, job opportunity (regardless of off-shoring) and options outside of the field of engineering. Everything else I feel about this topic you can deduce from the points above, doubly so for the points dripping with sarcasm.  It should also be noted that I don’t dislike other professions (nor management, which I could very well end up in some day), it’s just that when I compare it to engineering I feel I made the right decision for myself at this time. So there that is. I am young and have not experienced all of the ups and downs of engineering that a veteran might encounter, but I am strongly against discouraging kids from it.

Here’s what I do know. Tell your kids to make up their own minds. Point them in the right direction and let them make mistakes; don’t try to protect them from a potentially great career based upon current (linear) data. I was very lucky in this regard, I have wonderful parents who were very supportive of my choices (although neither was an engineer). As mentioned above, if you are an engineer, point out the good and the bad. Steer them away from the pitfalls in both education and the working world and help to make them a better engineer. Volunteer at schools to let children other than your own know the benefits of engineering and explain to people what you do in a positive light so others know that they can positively affect the world through work in engineering.

If you have any thoughts on engineering or encouraging children in engineering, please contact me or leave them in the comments below!

17 Comments

  1. One of the things that drives me nuts is the culture in some companies that employees with MBAs are better suited for mid to upper level positions. During my time as a co-op I saw several of the engineers working around me decide to go back to school for a MBA since it looked like the easiest path to a higher paying position. This is unfortunate because I think that more companies could use engineering talent in upper level positions. Perhaps they should be encouraging their employees to return to school and earn graduate engineering degrees.

  2. I think studying engineering also is good training in how to think. Besides learning specific instruments and equations, you learn how to evaluate problems and tackle them in a logical manner, skills required in any job. In the current job climate where people are switching jobs often and technology is rapidly changing, versatility is key. And engineering is a good basis for versatility, as you have discussed in a previous post.

    http://chrisgammell.com/2008/11/24/on-job-losses-and-stem-cell-engineers/

  3. The other thing you can do … coach a Lego Mindstorms Robotics Team. I did for six years … every team member is now a freshman engineering student!

  4. I am in complete agreement with Elaine. Fortune 500 companies have a pretty high percentage of CEO’s with engineering degrees. Why? I would say because engineering teaches you to think about the underlying causes and solutions to problems, and prevents you from being pulled in so easily by flawed ideas.

    Banking and finance and sales and marketing are all great professions, but they aren’t segments of the economy that create value, they are professions that add value to things that already exist. If nobody was designing new cars, new cell phones, new washing machines, etc. There wouldn’t be much left for those people to do. Engineers I think will always have an important role in the economy despite outsourcing and the like because things will always need to be designed or improved.

    Electronics unfortunately is seeing probably the worst of the offshoring trend because so much of it is being done in Asia and the like, but almost certainly it will come back when wages and benefits improve overseas. I don’t know what the time-frame is on that trend, but I would place it in the 10-100 year scale, which makes it potentially attractive to one or two generations down from current entry level people. And as has been mentioned in other articles and blogs, there is quite a quantity of work to be done in military and space applications for electrical engineers in America and Europe, so if you are REALLY worried about your job getting offshored, look into it. It is a volatile market, but if you don’t mind moving a little more often it is a pretty good situation these days, and probably will continue to be for at least a decade.

    I value my engineering degree mostly for the way it taught me to think about the world. I take a great deal of pride in knowing and understanding some little bit about how the world works. Imagine what you would see and understand about the world if you had never taken calculus. I’m not saying that people look around and see path integrals or anything, but understanding the relationship between derivatives and integral quantities and simple physics explains a lot of basic natural phenomena.

    Also, I think H-1B visas are good. Whether or not foreign nationals are allowed to work here, they’re alrady going to school here and receiving something like 51% of STEM graduate degrees, so we may as well get some work out of them after we educate them. I had a lot of friends in grad school that had trouble finding work in the US after graduation because they had to find a company to sponsor their work visa. Furthermore, I would say they were harder working and more intelligent than a good number of my US-born classmates — no offense those of you US citizens reading this, but you know who you are. If you truly believe in the benefits of globalization and free market economies, then you should agree that the best solution for everyone is to have the most qualified people doing a given piece of work. If that means some guy from India designing something, then so be it. If the motivation is just that you can depress wages by threatening to drop someone’s work visa, then that’s crap though. People should be fairly compensated for their work, regardless of national origin. Just my two cents.

  5. 2. “Engineers aren’t paid well enough!”

    — I have no complaints about my pay, but not all fields of engineering get decent pay right out of school. But even for me, I still think I’m doing things wrong. The older I get, the pay raises get smaller (if there’s any at all), the working hours get longer, and the stress level gets higher. Contrast this with my brother who owns a business in the health profession. The older he gets, the increase in revenue gets larger, the working hours get shorter (he works 3 days a week now), and the stress level goes lower (did I mention he works 3 days a week?).

    3. …..Even if you don’t keep going with engineering, it could contribute to your child’s career as a CEO.

    — I know the survey shows 20% of the top 500 CEOs have engineering degrees, the highest of any classification. OK, that means 80% do not. And who advises their children of their educational choices based on the current aggregate statistics of CEOs’ educational backgrounds?

    5. “I’d rather my child be a _________.”

    — While I would never actively discourage my children from engineering, if they came to me one day and asked whether they should be an engineer or a doctor, given that they are equally interested in both, I’d say “doctor” every time. More pay, more respect, more immediate job satisfaction.


    1. “You get to make stuff!”
    You aren’t just pushing buttons. …. No, instead you are going out and making something useful.

    — Haha…I just had to laugh at that one. Of course I’m just pushing bottons. I push a lot of them everyday. I also view lots of squiglley lines on a screen every day as well. As for making something useful, I guess that depends on your area of engineering. I’ve been working for more than a decade in analog IC circuit design. It was only last year when one of my products finally made it to market for the first time. Prior to last year, every single product that I’ve ever worked on failed to make it to market. Oh yes, I learned a lot during that time, but making something useful? Hardly.

    — I’ll also disagree with you regarding the uselessness of copy-cat products that sell for bottom dollar. Cost reduction is not only big business, it’s one of the main components of having a competitive economy. As for reverse engineering, there are legitimate uses this beyond making fakes.

    2. ….You get to wake up everyday and say “I can do anything. I can make anything. …”

    — Really? Do you really wake up everyday and say that? And when you get to work, do your bosses allow you to “do anything” and “make anything” you want? :-)

    3. ….Money doesn’t make people happy? Well, no, it doesn’t, and there are lots of studies to prove it.

    — And the studies show, according to the link, that beyond $40k/year, money doesn’t buy happiness. All I know is that if my income were to drop to $40k/year tomorrow, there will be a whole lot of unhappiness going on and it won’t just be me.

    4. “You won’t be doing the same thing every day!” ….. I wanted something where I could do a lot of different things and not sit behind a desk without any hands-on activities. ….What I’m trying to say here is that you are more likely to be expected to be an expert on lots of areas as an engineer (technology, science, business, etc) and that will keep you on your toes.

    — If you mean I get to read a different blog every day at work, then yes, every day is different. But you know what, I do sit behind a desk every single day, pushing buttons, and looking at squiggley lines. So do most of my colleagues. Being an engineer doesn’t necessarily spare you of that. Most engineers will not be an expert on business unless they move up the chain of command. But by then, they’re no longer a working engineer and their technical expertise will suffer.

    5. “My child, look at the big picture.”

    — I think you paint an idealized version of engineering, putting it up on an unwarranted pedestal of worship. Plenty of vocations offer societal impact that can be deeply rewarding as well, perhaps even more so than being an engineer. Doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen, police, social workers, clergy, and dare I say it, politicians. Engineering is just one such choice amongst many. I don’t feel it necessarily stands above the others.

    — I, too, had the same wide-eyed optimism when I first started working. Soon, I found that it’s just another job. That’s why I wrote in my profile that I’d like to try a stint in the land of spring rolls one day. That’d be really different and would put me on a brand new learning curve.

    — Having said that, I do enjoy my work overall. And good post, Chris. I enjoyed reading it despite my numerous counterpoints.

  6. @Fluxor

    I enjoy reading your comments because they generally like your viewpoint and its contrast to some of the more wide-eyed optimistic ones here, but I think you may be digging a little too deep on some of these points.

    You say your brother gets progressively larger pay raises, works fewer hours as he ages, etc., but you didn’t say you personally were not paid enough. The question here is do you think you get paid what you are worth? And to compare apples to apples, your brother owns his own business. I know a couple people who own their own engineering businesses and they are doing pretty darn well, pay-wise.

    I don’t think the statistics on CEO’s is meant to encourage people to go into engineering as a means of becoming a CEO, but more as an example that it doesn’t mean you will be forced to sit at a desk and look at squiggly lines forever if that doesn’t appeal to you.

    I agree on the engineer vs. doctor thing. I don’t know many people who are making that choice, but if I had an equal interest in both I guess I would take the doctor route. But really in retrospect, if I could pick either of those two or being a lawyer I’d take lawyer. I dunno how many lawyers you’ve met, but frankly I think I got most of them beat in the not-being-an-idiot department.

    making anything: For obvious reasons, “anything” is a pretty broad term, but my company does offer company money for developing ideas and prototypes if you think of something neat. You can’t work on it during your regular work hours, but if you need a few hundred bucks to build a prototype or develop an algorithm or whatever, the company will provide some money for you to try it out. I think that’s pretty cool. Last I heard you don’t get that opportunity in most non-engineering fields.

    Getting a pay cut would definitely make everyone unhappy, but the studies say that you would adapt to it, and 3 years from now the fact that you are making 40k/yr wouldn’t really be a major factor in determining your overall happiness. Losing my arm would definitely piss me off, but most studies indicate it wouldn’t make me all that unhappy in the long run. Think steady state and not transient effects of money.

    You may sit at a desk and look at squiggly lines all day (I do too, for the most part) but if you wanted to do something with more variety, I bet you could. Engineering allows you to do something with more variety if you seek it out, but certainly there are plenty of careers in engineering out there where you can focus on the same problem for fairly long periods of time.

    The big picture is that, yes, this post probably puts engineering on a pedestal of worship of sorts, but I take away from it the meaning that engineering isn’t really something to discourage youngsters from doing. It may not be ideal and I wouldn’t recommend people steer their children into it if it doesn’t hold their interest (unhappy engineers are very bad for any project), but the reality of an engineering career doesn’t seem to jive with parents’ perceptions of what they think it is. Why is that? I have no idea. People like to form opinions in the absence of data, I’m sure you’ve seen it happen more times than you care to remember. I know I have.

  7. @Nate:

    I do agree with you. Chris’s original post went too far in one direction, so I thought that I’d comment with a bit of hyperbole so the average ends up somewhere in the middle. :-)

    Of course, this reminds me of an old statistics joke: A statistician can have his head in an oven and his feet in ice, and he will say that on the average he feels fine.

    I have to agree with you on the point on lawyers. In fact, I recount in my blog a lawyer friend of mine, a partner at a large international law firm, who has never heard of a pay scale (http://flyingflux.blogspot.com/2009/01/lifes-bubble_20.html). She’s never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, having risen to her position on the strength of her family’s political connections.

    I guess in a way, lawyers are like mechanics. Once you find a good one, stick with the same guy.

  8. Item #1 really struck home. I watched marketing step in and halt development of a power converter just so they could get it to market. The design failed in the field and the blame was all placed on engineering.
    #2 and #3: Is there too much global competition? Well, yeah, considering that after NAFTA, engineering development became intensely cost controlled. In two companies, I was definitely told the competition in 3rd world countries were getting less than half the wages I was getting and I’d better step up t o the plate to take a pay cut. I’ve lost 80% of my wages since then, yet GM assembly line workers have increased their wages by nearly as much. Well, soon enough, GM workers will be globalized as I was.

    And wherever it fits, there is no incentive in any manner to use recycled materials (e.g. plastics) whose physical properties range wildly.

    BTW: I’m just an Engineering Technician, if I can see those same errors, the effects aren’t stopping at the Engineer level.

  9. Thanks for the link Flux, I will definitely check it out.

  10. Electrical Engineer here. I’ve been working professionally for 5 years now and it’s losing its luster. The glamor of Engineering, for me, has worn thin due to the limited pay of the profession. If you don’t own a moderately successful business, Engineering isn’t a way to become wealthy. Don’t get me wrong, I type this message from the confines of my big house but the pay checks aren’t like a Doctors’. I will say this, it’s a noble profession. I’d rather be an Engineer over a Lawyers any day.

  11. Carpenter here . . . .
    When I first started building homes and offices, it was great. You stand back and thing, “wow, I made that pile of sticks and sheeting in to a house.”

    Guess what, while a great and noble profession, carpentry has lost it’s luster, even with a $65,000 per year salary. It’s not because the profession has changed, nor is it because I have changed. It’s because when you have to do it for money, the managers take all the fun out of it!

    So, I’m trying something else now. Installing renewable energy systems is cool for now but, only a stepping stone to developing a system of my own.

    Bottom line; if work sucks, get a hobby or, try something new. It’s scary but, well worth it!

  12. I got two engineering degrees in the U.S.A. Now I am living in the U.S.A. in my mom’s house. Why? No engineering work.

    My kids aren’t dumb. They’d never consider studying engineering in a million years.

    Me? I’m thinking about moving to France, more with every passing day living in poverty. I heard they respect engineers there.

  13. Wonderful article. My parents did the right thing and let me do whatever I wanted – they fostered my geekyness, and, even though they’re not geeks themselves, let me do my own thing.

    I saw your Resume, and it excited me to see that you graduated from CWRU. I will be attending Case in the fall with the intention of majoring in Computer Science, and it’s great to see a personal success story.

    Best wishes.
    -Tom

  14. Read your article… sorry, didn’t change my mind. Nope, I am still discouraging both my kids (and any other kids that dare to ask) from going into engineering/science. Too bad for the USA, my daughter would’ve been a great engineer. Instead, she can be a doctor or a lawyer (yeah… this country really needs more lawyers). It would take to long to describe in detail how I’ve arrived at my conclusion after my 20+ yrs in the engineering field, but I think t basically boils down to: 1) the US gov’t is run by lawyers. 2) In order to stay in power, these lawyers need money… lots of it. 3) this money comes from corporations. 4) in return for this money, the gov’t rewards corporations with wage-busting programs such as H1-B. Clear enough? No?… read this: http://www.technozeal.com/topic10.html

    I knew this lady in a previous company I worked for. She had a bachelors degree is chemistry, yet she was working a software QA job… I mean a really brain-dead low-level SW QA job. I asked her why… she said “because it pays better than what I could make with the chemistry degree”.

    Money can’t buy happiness? maybe so, but it certainly can buy peace of mind, which I argue is closely related to happiness. Yeah… I suppose $100K/yr looks good to some high-school dropout who flips burgers for a living, but really, any kid with half a brain is going to avoid engineering like the plague given the hostile anti-engineering environment in the US.

  15. Great post. As an electrical engineering major, I find it hard to believe that some parents would discourage their children from entering an engineering profession. I guess it just shows how fortunate I am to have a mother supportive of my career interests. And for the people who say that our government are run by lawyers, and you can't do anything about it, well, you could get an engineering degree and a J.D. I plan on getting one. There are quite a few engineers who have already done so. Can one person "rock the boat?" Maybe not, but it's a start.

  16. After 13 and more years in banking/brokerage business I decided to start from the very beginning and started technical university (i’m 40!). I’m strongly encouraging my son to study maths as a prerequisite to engennering carrer. thnaks for the article.

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