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What Are the Impacts of Engineering?

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Take a look around yourself, no matter where you are sitting or standing as you read this. What do you see? You may see books, including this one that you are holding. Perhaps you see tables, chairs, and shelves if you are in a library. Maybe there is a couch, television set, telephone, windows, and walls if you are reading this book at home.

No matter what you see, you can be assured that an engineer was involved in designing or making it. Mechanical engineers helped make the machines that produced the paper this book is printed on; chemical engineers produced the ink of these words. Electronics and communications engineers develop the equipment and run the systems that provide television and telecommunications. Textile engineers manufactured the woven fabrics that make up your clothes; civil and materials engineers developed the paints, structural materials, and windows that make up the room around you. If you're in any kind of vehicle, many different engineers had a hand in designing and producing it.

The Everyday Impact of Engineering

These examples only scratch the surface of the activities and responsibilities of engineers. Engineering represents a group of skills that are central to modern life. Computers, aircraft, telecommunications, and all the other forms of high technology are obvious fruits of engineering practice. Not so obvious are the water we drink, the air we breathe, the houses we live in, even the food we eat. Individuals with training in engineering can gain entry into practically every form of business and the arts that make up our society.

Engineering offers the chance of lively, interesting work. More practically, it is one of the most reliable forms of employment. In recent years about half of the job offerings that campus recruitment offices report have gone to engineering students, even though they represent no more than 10 percent of graduates. Starting salaries for engineers are invariably the highest of any given to graduates with bachelor's degrees. Also, it is rare for the unemployment rate of engineers as a group to rise above a couple of percentage points, even when the economy is suffering.

In recent years the quality and quantity of engineers have been matters of national concern. Although most workers (of all types, from presidents to plumbers) are not in manufacturing, that sector of the economy is the driving force that sets all the other sectors in motion. The majority of engineers work either directly in manufacturing or construction, or in a host of services that support those activities. In today's world, nations generally are no longer competing militarily (thankfully!); instead, their economies compete through trade. The U.S. manufacturing base is the foundation of our success in competing in this arena. When the economy suffers, one of the first checkpoints for national policy makers is the health of the engineering professions. And as for those instances where the military is called to action, since the end of World War II, the United States has had a pre-eminent military infrastructure that has been supported by the efforts of thousands and thousands of civilian engineers. The technology developed for military applications has, in turn, translated into countless numbers of peaceful applications.

Besides its job security and its central position in the national economy, engineering often has opportunities for highly creative work. Most inventors have some type of engineering training. Think of the tremendous changes being wrought in our lifestyles by the introduction of the personal computer. Engineers were involved in the early days of computing and are at the forefront of developing everything from compact disks to the Internet for using computers today. Some engineers work in jobs that are highly routine, checking the same product characteristics day after day. But others are more involved in finding new ways to build or make things and in solving pressing social issues.

Something that sounds as good as engineering must have a catch, right? Well, there is no denying that engineering study is hard work. Engineering students must contend with a lot of math and science. Regardless of the type of engineering that interests you, it is based on various scientific discoveries, and to be a good engineer, you must be familiar with science.

Most engineering students, and many working engineers, must fight their image as nerds. The totally "out of it" apparel of the Dilbert cartoon character is emblematic. Some of the top college students, many of whom would make excellent engineers, choose to go on to law or business management simply because lawyers and executives have the reputation of higher status than engineers.

Another drawback is that although most American industries would cease to exist without engineers, those industries tend not to promote engineers as presidents or top executives. Backgrounds in finance or marketing are often preferred over engineering. This tendency is unusual. In both Germany and Japan, the two countries besides the United States that are renowned for their technological prowess, most major manufacturing companies are headed by engineers.
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