The Attractions of Technology

5 min read

Why do people become engineers or other kinds of technology professionals like computer scientists? Do they like what they're doing? IEEE Spectrum, in conjunction with IEEE-USA, wanted to find out, and so last fall we polled a few thousand IEEE members--both working "engineer/technology professionals," as we refer to them, and student members. These questions are particularly pertinent this month as the IEEE leads more than 100 engineering, scientific, and education societies and major corporations in celebrating National Engineers Week. The week (from 22 to 28 February) is dedicated to activities meant to enhance the public's understanding of the engineering profession and to promote precollege interest in math, science, and engineering.

The results of our survey were very positive. Most of the 830 who responded seemed pleased with what they're doing. And their basic reasons for going into technology fields held no surprises. More than three-quarters were motivated by a desire to "invent, build, or design things" and, of almost equal importance, to "solve real-world problems" [see bar chart, " Motivation to become..."]. A sizable number (19 percent) also cited the chance to "have a positive influence on the environment."

It turned out that for each question, both the technologists and students responded in almost equal percentages. The charts, then, show averages for the two groups. On only a few questions did the two groups differ by a statistically significant amount. For example, 41 percent of students said they were motivated by the profession's prestige and salary opportunities, but only 32 percent of those already in the field said so.

Most respondents knew they wanted to be technologists early on, well before their college years. Incredibly, 13 percent knew it before age 10. Some 36 percent knew it between 11 and 15, while another 40 percent, somewhat later bloomers, made up their minds between 16 and 20.

It's hard to say what most influences a career choice. Certainly, school is significant, so it was no surprise that almost two-thirds of our respondents were moved by a math or science course. Next came computer science courses, cited by 31 percent of the professionals, but by 49 percent of the students. Biology was cited by a smallish 8 percent, although IEEE Fellows in a recent survey held that biomolecular engineering would have an impact on society far greater than the hot fields of nanotechnology, megacomputing, and robotics [see "Technology Trends 2004," IEEE Spectrum, January].

But courses alone may not have been enough for that eureka! career moment [see bar chart, " First activities..."]. Some 42 percent said they were also affected by a book or magazine article, while 28 percent had their career choices prompted by a TV show or movie. This was true for a higher percentage of students (34 percent), perhaps an indication that kids watch more TV these days. And 27 percent went into technology because, they said, they had once met an engineer.

That one engineer could have been helping out at a high school science fair or talking to students in the classroom. Some 40 percent of the professional respondents said they do that, while 65 percent of students said they had participated in such fairs and talked to younger students. And 36 percent of all respondents on average are mentors to young people.

Once on a career path, a bit more than half the respondents felt that mathematics should be emphasized the most in school. A quarter felt physical sciences were most important, and 5 percent wanted emphasis on "interdisciplinary courses such as nanotechnology and biotechnology." Surprisingly, only 10 percent wanted "business/management" courses. Writing and speaking (communications) courses were cited by only 1 percent of the professionals. Here students were out ahead, though their numbers were still small--4 percent wanted more communications courses.

In The Opinion of Respondents

"Industry should get more involved to make schools more technology-related."

"Biotechnology and nanotechnology should be standard courses and not considered 'advanced.'"

"To attract potential engineers, we must overcome the handicap of students associating engineering with 'geekdom.'"

"English speakers should master a foreign language like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, or Russian."

"Most employers want engineers to continue to learn new things astechnologies evolve."

"The best engineers I've worked with all had a fascination with how things work."

"Teachers at all academic levels should encourage females to pursue technical degrees."

What skills will most be needed at work? Computer/information technology skills led this list, with an average of 35 percent. Computational skills and modeling/simulation were cited almost equally, by around 15 percent. And though few wanted to take the courses, 23 percent of our technologists and 14 percent of the students thought communications skills were important.

Can parents influence a child's career choice? We didn't ask that question expressly, but "family members" are significant--almost two-thirds of our respondents said a family member was important in steering them to a technical career. Next came teachers, followed by a friend.

What about money? Is a fat salary the biggest reward for technology professionals? Not by a long shot. It was the "most rewarding" factor for only 3 percent of respondents. Technical people do what they do because, as one would expect, they like what they're doing--"designing, building, or influencing new technologies." This combination was cited by almost three-quarters of respondents. Far behind was "managing projects and programs," and working "with co-workers of diverse backgrounds." Down at the bottom with salary was working with customers, also cited by 3 percent.

And what don't they like? Almost one-third cited "administrative and managerial tasks." Here the response of technology professionals, who have more experience with actual work than students, was statistically more significant--35 percent found it the least rewarding. "Regulatory and compliance procedures" were disliked by 20 percent of respondents, while their "social status"--apparently not high enough--bothered about 12 percent. For 10 percent, "salary" presented the smallest psychic reward.

Our respondents also seem comfortable in their fields. Some 48 percent believed they would still be in the same field 10 years hence, and another 11 percent thought they'd still be engineers but in a different field. The rest said they would either no longer be engineers or would be retired.

A large percentage (59 percent) felt that the technology professions were more open to women and minorities today than 10 years ago. And more women are getting into engineering, according to our survey. Only 6 percent of our professional respondents were women, but the number of female respondents who are students jumped to a promising 17 percent.

Our survey represents just a snapshot of opinions, but it indicates that engineers and technology professionals are passionate about what they're doing. They knew it would be their life's work at an early age. And despite the present climate of concern about the future of engineering and technology what with job migration and outsourcing, they believe they're in it for the long haul.

Conducting The Survey

The Response Center, a market research firm in Fort Washington, Pa., conducted the survey for IEEE Spectrum and IEEE-USA. An e-mail questionnaire was sent to about 2000 higher-grade and 2000 student IEEE members selected randomly. Data was collected between 3 and 16 December 2003. A total of 830 members responded, including 427 higher-grade and 403 student members, for a 21 percent response rate.

A PowerPoint file summarizing the results of the 2004 IEEE Engineer/Technology Professional Surveycan be downloaded.

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