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The Demographic Profile of Engineering as a Profession

Most of these disadvantages, however, are ones of perception, not of reality. Many leading U.S. companies have engineering managers. Although engineering is not an automatic ticket to upper management, it is certainly no impediment. And the nerdy image of engineering is one that is rapidly fading away. With more and more engineering work involving teams of experts solving manufacturing problems, the time is passing when an engineer could be a lone operator in a laboratory, spending more time with a computer than with fellow workers.

Fortunately, the status of engineers in the United States is changing. Managers with engineering backgrounds now hold many of the seats in corporate boardrooms. For example, Louis Gartner, recently retired chairman of IBM, was educated as an engineer (and before taking the reins at IBM, he had been CEO of a consumer-goods company, RJR Nabisco). Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel Corporation, is a Ph.D. materials engineer. And Garret Westerhof, CEO of the construction firm Malcolm Pirnie, has a civil engineering background. The global competitiveness that American manufacturers are developing is bringing the production and management roles-usually run by the engineering staff-into the forefront. Better engineering means better manufacturing, higher quality, and more innovation-all the things that American industry needs to succeed.

Engineering used to be thought of as a white, male club, but that time has gone, never to return. All the engineering branches are reaching out to women and minority groups. If you are in either category, engineering is opening its doors to you. There are professional organizations that offer support, and there are already many women and minority engineers who are rewriting the book on the American success story.

Finally, engineering is excellent preparation for tackling many of society's ills. The situation of the homeless cries out for a solution to the problem of affordable housing. The environment has become a global issue of the highest importance; engineering skills will be needed to make amends for the pollution of the past and to prevent new forms of pollution. Poverty is cured by jobs, and jobs are created when engineers develop new industries and tools. The problem of hunger can be confronted with more economical means of producing and delivering food.

This is a guide to you in choices of engineering disciplines if you are already leaning toward engineering. And if you are not so inclined, it will show you why engineering might be your best choice. If mathematics and science are a snap for you to learn, engineering can be the best possible way to exercise that talent. Even if math and science are intimidating to you, don't automatically reject engineering. These hurdles can be overcome, and you will have a chance to apply a strong technical training in all sorts of interesting ways.

What Is Engineering?

Here is the formal definition of engineering, as espoused by the American Society for Engineering Education:

Engineering is the profession in which knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize the materials and forces of nature economically for benefit of mankind.

This is a definition that was surely argued over and amended many times by a large number of people. Therefore every word in it has a precise meaning. The key words, as this engineer sees it, are these:

"Mathematical and Natural Sciences"

No getting around it: engineering involves a lot of math and science. In practice, however, most engineers don't work with any mathematics above calculus, which many students learn in their last year of high school or first year of college. More maths is taught-such as linear algebra, differential equations, and so forth-because educators want to be sure that engineers are well grounded in mathematics at the outset of their careers. Mathematics beyond calculus is essential for engineers who go on to get a master s degree or doctorate. But don't be intimidated. Many engineers are very successful in their daily work with no mathematics beyond algebra.

The sciences are another story. One way or another, all engineers are involved with sciences such as chemistry, physics, geology, or materials-but not all sciences, and not all the time. This is a key difference between the profession of engineer and that of scientist.

"Study, Experience, and Practice"

Engineering combines art with science. "Art" means that the engineer depends on many things that haven't been reduced to mathematical equations. Engineers often depend on rules of thumb or calculated guesses. They work with approximations, with unknowns, and with their intuition and judgment. Nevertheless, the work must be on target-very often, lives are at stake in a bridge or aircraft design. That's why these structures are built with a margin of safety and are thoroughly tested before use.
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