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Making dreams come true
Published on Friday, 03 Dec 2010
Without engineers, virtually everything we bundle under the heading of civilisation would be science fiction.
Photo: Oliver Tsang

Engineering could be the best respected, most coveted and all-round "awesome" profession.

Yet the contemporary world's best-known comic everyman, a full-time loser called Dilbert, is an engineer. Not only that, engineers the world over have taken him to their hearts and identified with him.

Engineering is an objective, logical and unswervingly realistic vocation. Engineers deal only in absolutes and the finitely measurable. Their job is to define and apply rules, and then use them to find solutions. It sounds a soulless enterprise. Yet what engineers do is rather more glamorous. They make mankind's dreams come true.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, space exploration, printing, infrastructure, architecture, the internet and musical Hello Kitty LED key-rings would not exist without engineers. Virtually everything we bundle under the heading of "civilisation" would be science fiction - only there'd be no science fiction then either.

Yet engineers are joked about and even occasionally sneered at, while a man with sweaty armpits, a manic expression and absolutely no interest in furthering the cause of humanity can spend his day shouting at phones and computers on a trading floor (thanks to engineers) and get all the money and kudos.

The apparent incongruity is easy to explain. All the profiling research shows what engineers and most of us who have ever worked with them already knew: engineers like to solve problems, they don't particularly like being the centre of attention and there is no such thing as too much detail.

This is perhaps the main reason why so few make the successful transition from specialist engineering to general management.

"Engineers respond to different motivations in work from those of non-technical workers," according to research collected by the United States Industrial Research Institute and reported by Joseph Coates Consulting. "Their focus is on the work itself rather than external awards. Their reward system should be framed around acknowledgment of specific accomplishments, rather than something more general as we so often see in shops - the salesperson of the month, the clerk of the month - that just cuts no ice with engineers."

One of the greatest challenges facing engineering departments, according to the research, is teamwork. On one hand, it was becoming increasingly important in organisational cultures and as a catalyst to more effective and faster solution-finding.

On the other they concluded that the scientific training of engineers predisposed them to see the flaws in proposals rather than their potential. To anyone who has ever sat in a meeting room and had what seemed a very good idea rejected on points of seemingly minor detail, this will ring bells.

One engineer who did make the transition into management, and later training, was Stephen Cerri. For him, the issue is fundamental. "As engineering students, we're taught that there are right and wrong answers," he says.

"In our world, if the answer is 3.14, it's 3.14. But in management, there's no right or wrong, there are only effective answers."

On a day-to-day basis, we have reasons to be grateful for the engineer's obsession with detail and unflinching adherence to rules. Since all our infrastructure, much of the quality of our lives and ultimately the chances of us surviving from one day to the next depend on the engineer's focus on detail, we should perhaps indulge them more graciously.

As for engineering salaries, first the bad news: if you are a graduate engineer, undergraduate engineer or about to make the potentially life-defining choice of which course to follow at university, and all of your talents and interest draw you to engineering, then you will not earn as much money as a top-ranking lawyer or high-flying financier, and there is no point pretending otherwise.

The good news, however, is that despite all the jokes about their reputation for dullness, poor people skills and a future patron saint called Dilbert, engineers are by and large happy with their lot.

And although they may still not earn quite as much as the ones on the trading floor, they certainly won't go poor.

Salaries are also forecast to rise at a higher rate than many other professions, largely due to the ever-increasing emphasis on reducing use of materials and resources, and the need to improve efficiency through new techniques, products and processes.

And in those quiet moments of reflection when engineers may ponder their decision to enter a profession that can make eyes roll when it comes up in conversation, they will know that with very few exceptions, the world is a better place because they - the engineers - make something other than money.

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