Why No One Wants to be an Engineer

With high unemployment and a shortage of high-tech degree holders, President Obama wants more students in the hard sciences. But what is he really asking of them?

Ever since I can remember, word on the street has been that the United States needs more engineers if we’re going to compete with Asia in tomorrow’s global economy. After an October meeting with his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, President Obama affirmed as much:

“The businesses represented here tell me they’re having a hard time finding high-skilled workers to fill their job openings. And that’s because today only 14 percent of all undergraduate students enroll in what we call the STEM subjects -– science, technology, engineering, and math. Of those students, one-third will switch out of those fields, and only about 2 in 5 will graduate with a STEM degree or certification within six years.

“So these are the jobs of the future. These are the jobs that China and India are cranking out. Those students are hungry because they understand if they get those skills they can find a good job, they can create companies, they can create businesses, create wealth. And we’re falling behind in the very fields we know are going to be our future.”

So what’s the hold-up? We’ve known about this problem for two decades, and the economy has been in the tank for the last three years. Why aren’t more students choosing and finishing these job-securing degrees?

Christopher Drew in a recent NYT article claims the answer is straightforward: STEM degrees are too hard, for two reasons. First, the applied sciences are essentially that—applied. So it’s a lot more difficult to “fudge the numbers” and inflate GPAs for sub-par performance in the hard sciences (given that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” doesn’t fly in the aerospace industry), than for, say, English or political science students. (Hold your fire liberal arts majors; I too have a B.A.) Second, engineering profs tend to take a you’re-not-worth-my-time-until-you’ve-made-it-through-differential-equations approach to freshmen and sophomores. But as someone who graduated from a respected engineering program and now works in the field, I propose there might be one more factor discouraging high school seniors from choosing a STEM degree: their humanity.

In an earlier post on work, I argued that creation is in need of repair, and we humans have been given the task of restoring it. “But the goal of engineering,” as recently expressed by one of my (uncharacteristically thoughtful) engineering buddies, “is the exploitation of nature. That’s why we approach a problem with the assumption that nature will be working against us.” At the risk of sounding like a tree-hugging Avatar fanatic, there is something inhumane about that. And this anti-humanity is humorously obvious in the life of engineering undergraduates.[sociallocker]

Our nights and weekends are spent calculating Laplace transforms or programming microcontrollers to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Our home away from home is a sterile, windowless computer lab where we endure crisp 65-degree temperatures, excessive fluorescent lighting, and the odors of our–much smarter—foreign friends (which result from a turmeric-saturated diet, infrequent showering, and an affinity for the same wool sweater…even in August). And though we often forget to eat, some of our peers (one of whom might be female—we think) will inevitably indulge, rather loudly, in a scrumptious Snickers bar. And what is the prize for which we tolerate all this starving, staring, stinking, swearing, smacking, and shivering? Utter mastery of one piece of creation. (For EEs it’s the electron. And, truth be told, a good portion of our day involves silently cussing the little beggars for refusing to behave according to our wishes.)

But humor aside, the product of this process is a human tool, equipped with the latest techniques for breaking nature in half and recasting her, sometimes for the benefit of society. And therein lies the rub: we are trained to apply knowledge indiscriminately—no wisdom required. Questions like “What’s the physical world for and how ought I approach it?” are never even alluded to in our curriculum. “Engineering Ethics” courses are not only morally and philosophically shallow (mine was a single lecture, given by a former engineer turned lawyer, and might have been titled “Tips for Staying out of Jail”), they seem to hint at the questionableness of our work. (Has anyone ever been required to take “Music Ethics?”) Furthermore, these courses (purportedly) focus on what to and not to do with the results of our labor and don’t even pretend to address the engineering process itself.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, our intuition tells us that creation doesn’t exist simply for our purposes. (That’s why Al Gore can shed almost believable tears over global warming.) In fact, I would argue that as humans, we further intuit a particular responsibility to look after her. Majoring in a STEM subject requires denying that intuition, and as Mr. Brown points out in “Saving the World, Professionalized,” Millennials (though misguided) are anything but interested in exploiting the world we feel entrusted to mend. I think that’s the reason the most satisfied engineers work at Facebook.

This is not a tirade against “those greedy capitalists;” it’s an attempt to acknowledge that we, as humans, are inherently moral and have a natural inkling that there’s more to nature than meets the eye. It’s an argument for wise technicians. Notice the LORD’s key requirement for the folks he recruited to manufacture His sanctuary.

“Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.” –Exodus 35:35

We can’t convince enough students to dive into subjects like “Solid-State Electronics” because engineering is hard. It’s hard like spouting the multiplication table from 1-20 (something a mere machine can do) is hard. But it’s also hard like selling the family farm (something a mere machine can’t understand) is hard. That’s why it’s unattractive.

Read Jace’s response to Greg Forster here.[/sociallocker]

24 Comments

  • […] Engineering Is Glorious! Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 10:38 AM Greg Forster I just came across this fascinating article by a Christian engineer, Jace Yarbrough, about “why we don’t have […]

  • Avatar
    November 30, 2011

    Tihamer Toth-Fejel

    Yes, engineering is difficult. So is training for the Olympics. As Vince Lombardi once said, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” However, doing well in the NCAAs or the Olympics is temporary and fades with time–an engineer gets to *create*, and while his artifacts may fade like Olympic medals, they inspire other engineers to improve the design to make new artifacts that can make the world a better place. With sports, whether one person or another wins makes no difference.

    When I was in grad school at the University of Notre Dame, the Computer Science lab displayed a banner that read “Scientists discover what is; Engineers create what has never been.” The engineer’s capacity to create is one of the things that concretely shows that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In contrast, we can all guess whose image and likeness lawyers are made in (sorry, I couldn’t resist; I will acknowledge that many great people have been lawyers, thought I suspect that they were great in spite of their legal training).

    Earth is a garden in a vast and dead wilderness. Only engineers have the ability, and the responsibility, to tame it and bring it to life. In fact, as Eric Burgess (co-founder of the British Interplanetary Society) and Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described it, the whole point of the human race is to transform the universe into Mind–a temple in which God can dwell as Jesus dwelt in His body on Earth. That is a *huge* undertaking, but basically an engineering task. OTOH, it’s so big a task that there will surely be a place for even lawyers to help.

  • […] You can find Jace’s article here. […]

  • […] Forster of the Kern Foundation recently responded to my last post (“Why No One Wants to be an Engineer”) with this forceful rebuttal. In a nutshell, he argues that “God loves engineering. When he made […]

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  • […] his gracious reply to what was, I admit, a provocatively worded critique of his post on engineering in modernity, Jace Yarbrough asks me for my thoughts on this question: To begin, I […]

  • […] of the material by falling into an inordinate denigration of the material, as evidenced by his first post arguing that students’ “humanity” will tend to lead them away from the material professions, […]

  • […] 6. Why No One Wants to be an Engineer […]

  • […] to make up our own lives and by unscrupulous optimists who wanted to pursue business opportunities or scientific discovery without regard for consequences to the environment or the human condition. And we have a generation […]

  • Avatar
    October 17, 2012

    theoldman

    I think one should remember that when nature did hold a more intimate sway over our lives, our lives were, except for a small elite of the royalty and the rich, short, hard and painful. We were at the mercy of pestilence, droughts, hunger and the elements. The western nations have mostly elliminated these plagues. And, because of this, large numbers of people in these nations have never experienced the hardships that spurred our ancestors to find better ways. Now they think STEM is somehow not as holy as, say, music, and in need of ethics training. You mentioned that there is no course in Music ethics. Imagine if there was! Maybe Wagner wouldn’t have written those better than thou operas that inspired Hitler. Perhaps there should be ethics in environmental studies. I.e. what level of human death is acceptable to protect a certain amount of the environment. (We couldn’t support the current global population today without artificial fertilizers) In countries where the standard of living is lower, there is much more appreciation for the STEM professions.

    But there is another reason STEM doesn’t attract young people much in the United States. STEM people have been denigrated in the media for decades, from the bumbling professor to the maniacal scientist bent on world destruction. Hence they don’t have much social status which translates to lower mating potential. This strikes at the heart of a young person’s being who then makes the subconscious decision that his evolutionary chances are better elsewhere. As Thomas Friedman wrote, “The problem is that in China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears whereas in the United States, Britney Spears is Britney Spears”

  • Avatar
    February 24, 2013

    HawkFest

    You’ve written the following :
    « “But the goal of engineering,” as recently expressed by one of my (uncharacteristically thoughtful) engineering buddies, “is the exploitation of nature. That’s why we approach a problem with the assumption that nature will be working against us.” At the risk of sounding like a tree-hugging Avatar fanatic, there is something inhumane about that. »

    I don’t agree with your friend : his perception of engineers working against nature like some battle between man and Nature is quite deviant. Actually when this happens, you’ll always find monetary interests behind, like those promoting the denial of Global Warming and thus battling against Nature (and in the end against ourselves), dangerously acting like irresponsible children for their sole egotistic interests, and having their own army of lawyers and corrupted so-called “scientists” to do so…

    A “good” engineer does not consider Nature as his/her enemy working against creativity : on the opposite, Nature is a huge source of inspiration for them. Of course one has to know about Newton’s theories, thermodynamics, mathematics, etc. and the advances of pure science in regards to his/her field of specialization, so as to make something work within currently known Nature’s parameters. But its a huge part of being an engineer to understand the current state of science in regards to his/her fiield, and as such to have some minimal mathematical skills. Perceiving Nature as “something to work against” is IMHO pure ill-thinking : any creation not considering Nature’s reality, or trying to go against it, is doomed to be flawed. As a matter of fact, it’s mostly the bo$$ of the engineer who would think that way.

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    June 24, 2013

    Conspiracy

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    June 24, 2013

    Hardcore

    Hi there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with? I’m going to start
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    June 26, 2013

    Jace

    Sure thing, Hardcore. We at HP use WordPress. Best to you in your blogging endeavors.

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    July 14, 2013

    accountancy

    My name is Kim and I work as a cpa in Friday Harbor.
    Whenever I am no longer working I will be writing articles.
    I am browsing the internet frequently for like minded writers and enjoyed this article.

  • Jace
    July 14, 2013

    Jace

    I’m glad you benefited from it, Kim.

  • Avatar
    October 14, 2013

    Mike Rotch

    philosophy undergrad chiming in to say that technology is the primary tool of post-industrial capitalism. if you don’t believe me then look at the list of highest valued companies. those that aren’t specifically selling high tech at least rely heavily on technology at the production stage. even administration uses technology, coincidentally purchased from the high tech companies (IT products; software, hardware etc). so underlying this push by our leaders to study STEM fields is the silent cheering of capitalism. with it comes the avoidance of environmental and social problems that we become accustomed to hearing about. because if you took the time to think about such things, you’d realize that developing a new operating system does nothing to help THOSE kinds of problems. any job you can find where you can provide for yourself and ultimately make some one else obscenely rich is a blessing. one that very few people receive.

  • Avatar
    October 14, 2013

    Mike Rotch

    NOT make some one obscenely rich. typo…

  • Avatar
    October 29, 2013

    bob

    I did EE for 2 years. Definitely love aspects of the subject and the material, but realised, I didn’t think I wanted to become an EE for the rest of my life. I lost like 10kg, never saw my outside friends anymore, was still living with my parents. Spent my entire life just doing math and work. Started not having showers and grew a beard lol. I was just constantly busy, tired and stressed and one night I just realised I had absolutely zero creativity (which I’m usually naturally talented at). The entire educational system had destroyed all my creativity and burnt out my natural talents. That was when I realised I might be better off doing a job that allows me to have a more natural work/life balance. I realised I need to do a career that I’m more naturally inclined to do, once that isn’t as taxing on my health and I can easily do until I’m 55-65 and have a healthy work / life balance.

  • […] what about the engineering student or the business major who just wants to learn something or other about the h…? Shouldn’t humanities departments have a place for students like that too? The short answer that […]

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