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'Invisible Profession' Getting More Recognition

By John R. Platt

It's a high-tech world. Engineers bring that world to life.

Let's say you've got your engineering degree. Now comes the real test: when someone at a party asks what you do, how do you answer?

If you were to say "I'm an engineer," chances are their eyes would glass over and you'd soon find yourself talking about the weather.

But if you could say "I design chips for cell phones," or "I write software for business applications," or "I'm helping to create more efficient solar energy panels," well then, you'd have the start of a conversation.

That's a good thing to keep in mind as you start your career path in a profession many outsiders know nothing about. Engineering has long been described as the "invisible profession," because the general public is not aware of the contributions engineers have made to technology and society. But just about everyone understands how technology has changed their world, how it has improved or even saved lives, and how it has taken us to places we never imagined.

That brings us to you. Engineers makes things happen. They are creators, people who solve problems, and innovators. As an engineer, you have the ability and the mind-set to take two ideas and combine them to make something new. That puts you in high demand, because companies, universities and governments do know what an engineer does, and they place a very high value on it. Without engineers, corporations would have no new products, governments would not be able to deliver services, and universities would just be full of people in tweed jackets discussing philosophy.

On the corporate end, engineers are more committed to developing new products, enhancing old products to make them new again, and keeping systems running at optimal levels. Opportunities in corporate life include new-product design and development, manufacturing and production, quality control testing, and maintenance, among others.

Work on the university, academic, or not-for-profit level tends to be more focused on research and development. This isn't "pure" science research, but work coming out of university or NGO labs may be driven by solving a social need, rather than an immediately commercial one. While the need to create new products out of this research is not as much of a driving force, discoveries from academic research may eventually be licensed to corporations for commercial development.

Engineers working for government organizations also have opportunities on the research side, but may have even greater opportunities in developing, supporting or maintaining systems and services.

You don't necessarily need a graduate-level degree to be an engineer. It will probably help in the long run, but don't put pressure on yourself to finish grad school before you enter the job market. Most entry-level engineering jobs only require an undergraduate degree, so you can probably start your career while still finishing your education. The vast majority of engineering grad students are already in the work force and take extra courses on the side.

Most engineers specialize, so your basic skills may need to be enhanced for whatever field you enter. Your employers will expect this, and as a beginning engineer you may be placed on lower-level assignments while you work under a mentor or go through a corporate training program.

Even when you start to work on your own projects with less guidance from experienced peers, your career comes with a life-long commitment to education. Technology life cycles are short -- as little as five years, on average -- so you always need to be "up" on what's new in your field.

Even with specialization, you shouldn't feel locked into a given field. The same core skills of creativity and the ability to solve problems are necessary in all areas of technology. Your more specific skills could be of use in any number of industries.

For example, software engineers are valued in any business, and could find themselves working on communication systems, medical equipment, transportation systems, networking devices, robotics, video games, or a host of other applications. This flexibility could give you the chance to improve your career, or to move to an area that more closely matches your interests.

Engineering as a whole is a very stable profession. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineering employment is expected to grow at a rate equal to all other professions over the next ten years. While some engineering fields, such as aerospace, have experienced slower-than-average growth, the Department of Labor predicts growing opportunities in biomedicine, computing, and environmental engineering.

Overall, the number of engineering graduates should be in rough balance with the number of job openings, says the Department of Labor. But competition exists: Chinese and Indian universities are pumping out engineers at rates much higher than their American counterparts. But so far, American engineers have at least one perceived advantage: their creativity.

Expect to be well compensated as an engineer -- above the national average, in fact. Maybe not as much as a stock broker, but your starting salaries will put you on the right path to a good life, and if you succeed and rise up the ladder, you'll be in a good position for the rest of your career.

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and marketing consultant who often writes about technology, entrepreneurship, and the environment.


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