The 21st-Century Engineer

Our Dream Jobbers provide a glimpse into why it's an exciting time to work in engineering

PHOTO: John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

In the popular imagination, all engineers are Dilbert: socially stunted idiot savants who sit in cubicles all day, fiddling with numbers on a computer. Part of the problem is that the gulf between technologists and the general public has never been greater. As technologies have become sophisticated to the point of boggling the mind, mainstream press outlets, particularly in the West, have reacted mostly by marginalizing thoughtful technology coverage.

Five years ago we started the Dream Jobs series—back again in this issue—to challenge the stereotype of who engineers are and what their work worlds are like. Like many engineers, our Dream Jobbers have fun at work: They’ve found ways to live for their work and not just work for a living, often by combining their passions and interests with a paycheck.

Dream Jobs is also our way of celebrating National Engineers Week, which takes place in the United States every February. EWeek, as it’s called, is one of a number of activities developed by the U.S. National Engineers Week Foundation to promote engineering education and careers. The foundation and many other organizations—IEEE foremost among them—are working hard to help young people understand the value of engineering education in a world that depends utterly on technology developments for its economic growth, environmental health, and social well-being.

Although we don’t aim our profiles at youngsters, every year we get letters of appreciation from grade school educators who tell us that they use the coverage to inspire their students. We get requests for digital and print copies of the Dream Jobs issue from teachers around the globe.

Engineering education has been a priority in the United States for decades. Even so, there’s lots to be done. Most engineering students are bombarded with abstractions for a long time before they get a sense of what they’ll be doing with their newly developed analytical skills. They sweat through lectures on device physics, circuit analysis, and feedback without ever being told that these are the fundamental concepts behind hi-fi stereo amplifiers. They’re expected to absorb the basics of Boolean logic and MOS semiconductors without knowing that these underpin all modern computers. In other words, students don’t get an idea of the big picture, let alone a sense of the value of the work they’ll be doing. Experimental schools like the Frank W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., where students get to tackle design work almost immediately, are the exception rather than the rule. In addition, at most engineering schools, there’s relatively little emphasis on the development of communication skills, languages (no, we’re not talking about C++ here), or management and leadership skills.

And then there’s that image issue. Although people think of engineering as the engine behind economic growth, they often fail to realize its contributions to improving health care, the environment, and our overall quality of life.

Entry-level positions in engineering and technology also pose a challenge. These jobs should be as rewarding and stimulating as possible if newly minted engineers are to be persuaded to stick things out and make a career of it rather than jumping ship at the first opportunity for more money in some other industry.

People pursue technology for a living because they are passionate about making things, making things better, and making a difference in the world. Today’s engineers also need to be quick, nimble, and able to learn new things all the time. They need the knowledge to tackle classical engineering problems but also the sensitivity to understand the social impact of technology on people and the environment. They need the sophistication to be able to work in multidisciplinary settings with people from faraway places and with notably different cultural beliefs. Nowadays, especially, they should have some understanding of the business side of technology.

It’s a lot to ask of any one person, of course. But as our profilees in this issue would attest, the psychological rewards—the only ones that really matter—can be very great.

For articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.

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