Sunday, June 8, 2008

Contrarian Career Advice: Forget Engineering

College-bound students, especially girls, are often encouraged to consider a career in engineering or computer science.

I think that's very risky. How long can we expect that American companies will be willing to pay U.S. prices for engineers and computer professionals when China and India have so many more engineers and computer professionals willing to work for less than half of what U.S. workers are? And when ever more work product can be sent over the Internet.

The rationale usually offered is that American workers are more innovative. That advantage is rapidly evaporating as Chinese and Indian universities have been revamping their curriculum to encourage innovative thinking.

From where I sit, unless you have unusually strong potential to be an engineer or computer programmer, it's wiser to learn how to be an entrepreneur. That can never be offshored. Also, it's more learnable than the advanced math and high-level reasoning required in engineering and computer science.

I am not a huge fan of the generic business major, but many students might be wise to consider a major or masters degree in entrepreneurship--as long as the faculty is dominated by successful entrepreneurs, not theoreticians. Here's Entrepreneur magazine's list of top undergraduate and graduate programs.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right on this, Marty. What companies don't outsource, they bring in from overseas. (Woman, former programmer, wasted considerable bucks on additional coursework/training.)

Dave said...

Dr. Nemko,

Readers might also be interested in UK programs.

The degree programs at British schools are cheaper than the ones offered at private US schools, and the MA degree can be completed in one year. GRE scores are not required for US applicants.

Anonymous said...

As a woman, I agree with you 100%. I believe you once stated in an article that no matter how many U.S. students major in engineering or computer science, China and India can still beat us due to their large populations.

BGC said...

Well, on the other hand being educated as an engineer is (usually) a rigorous education in a valid subject - when so much of higher education is neither.

The skills, habits and confidence learned from engineering should (I would guess) be widely applicable in many jobs.

So I would say that people (women or men) who have sufficient aptitude for engineering should see whether they can get themselves interested in it. It is a much more worthwhile subject than many alternatives.

Wit the proviso (except for the high flyers) not to become fixated on a *career* as an engineer - stay flexible.

jwfbean said...


Thomas Friedman makes the case in The World is Flat that the US should produce more engineers, more math and science specialists, so we can be more competetive in the global marketplace. When I read that book, it made no sense to me: why should we try to compete on those grounds when the costs are SO MUCH cheaper elsewhere?

My own personal career path seems to verify this. I started my career as a software engineer and I now work in sales. That's where the money is for me: I was a so-so engineer and I'm more of a people person.

I like to think I was making a choice based on personal preference, but you're probably right, it was because entrepreneurial work is where we should focus.

Ed said...

I agree with bgc - A good undergrad engineering education is excellent preparation for many other jobs in business, entrepreneurship or many other fields. You learn important analytic and model-building skills. If you emphasize these in your education, you can easily retool to slide into new fields- green tech, biotech, web advertising, financial analyst. Computer science/software engineering may be less useful in some ways because it is less broad (you don't need to learn physics for example) but on the other hand computer science students usually have very good math skills which are generally lacking in the workplace.
There are many "engineering lite" positions in the US -- in order to outsource successfully specifications need to be developed and projects need to be managed. In addition companies need "engineer analysts" to keep track of trends in the industry. Product concept and design need significant engineering input/knowhow. This is where a lot of innovation is done in use-models etc.
If you do not have the talent or are not willing to put in the energy required to be top of the field, counting on being a practicing engineer is not a great idea. If you are at the top of the field (worldwide) you can make a great living in Silicon Valley or many places in the US.

Anonymous said...

There's an article in this week's Newsweek that begs to differ:

Title: "Geek Girls: Revenge of the Nerdettes."

The intro: "As geeks become chic in all levels of society, an unlikely subset is starting to roar. Meet the Nerd Girls: they're smart, they're techie and they're hot."

So not only can you be an engineer, you can be a HOT engineer. That's important. The fact that you might not have a job for very long is not. Wow, sex sells even in engineering.

Newsweek and the Nerd Girls decided that this was the best way to attract women and girls to the field. Those who already have the skills, talent and desire do not need this. Maybe the Nerd Girls forgot that.

If there are any female engineers in China and India, you think they're concerned about playing dress-up?

Bozoer Rebbe said...

My son is pretty talented as far as math goes, 1550 on the SAT with a perfect math score. He's in engineering school right now with close to a four point avg. He also works as an apprentice plumber. I've encouraged him to get his journeyman's card and maybe even get certified as a master plumber. Engineering can be outsourced and offshored, but when your toilet is overflowing you can't outsource the job to India.


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