I read a surprising blog recently, elsewhere on the Internet (http://freshestfinance.blogspot.com/2008/08/engineering-vs-medicine-money.html), which compared the economics of becoming an engineer to the economics of becoming a medical doctor. In the blog, the writer contended that you are better off becoming an engineer than a physician, because (supposedly) the hours are shorter, the school debt is lower, and, when these factors are included in the analysis, pay is supposedly better.
What the writer assumed in his analysis was that an engineer enjoys an unbroken succession of raises in his profession, which many reading this would argue isn't always true, I'm sure. EE job succession isn't unbroken, let alone raises. Moreover, the writer didn't take into account how easily an engineering task can be outsourced, compared to a medical task. He also didn't take into account the limits on physician supply that are imposed by professional and accrediting bodies. Engineers, on the other hand, have no such limits. Most anyone who wants to be an engineer can be one, but that's not true about becoming a physician.
The comparison got me thinking about other aspects of the two professions, such as how well off individuals in each profession are concerning pay and job stability, but more importantly for my purposes, how relatively Noble each one is.
In the book, Sustaining the Dignity and Nobility of Medical Care, by Joseph V. Simone, the author reviews some of the failings of the medical profession. He bemoans escalating costs and declining quality, as well as the battle between ethics and profitability. It sounds similar to the problems in the engineering profession, except that I would posit that we don't have escalating costs. If anything, I would expect that engineering salaries are dropping. In fact, the IEEE reported that EE median primary income dropped in 2010 (http://www.todaysengineer.org/2010/Oct/salary.asp).
But regardless of the criticisms of the medical profession, most people can readily point to the good that it does (healing the sick, discovering new cures), and the good that it does for itself in the process (job and pay security though limitation of supply, plus almost no age discrimination for current physicians, as opposed to new entrants).
How many people on the street could point to the good that EEs do, and the good that the profession does for itself? What would be their assessment of the Nobility of the EE profession?
I asked some friends, and they could all point to cell phones and computers as benefits to society from the labor of electronics engineers, along with electric cars as the benefit from electrical engineers, but those were all seen as conveniences--even as toys--rather than as necessities. What about MRIs and life-saving medical electronics? Yes, very useful, but associated with physicians rather than engineers.
And my discussions with fellow engineers concerning how well the profession takes care of its members, relative to how the medical profession takes care of its own, were as you would have expected: damning of the EE industry. The writer of the blog praising engineering over medicine would have been surprised.
In the face of all that, what is the assessment of our profession's Nobility? Before we answer, let's look at what one engineering school (at California State University) expects from its engineering students: “The desire and ability to preserve the nobility of the engineering profession in its dedication to the welfare of society by nurturing ethical and professional responsibilities.” It says, dedication to the welfare of society.
So, please tell me, on the issue of EE vs. MD, who passes or fails when it comes to:
1. dedication to the welfare of society, and
2. the care and protection of the profession's members?
Which one is more Noble?
(Events occurring at recent IEEE holiday parties should not be used in your assessments.)
Rich Krajewski is an electronics engineer, editor, and amateur-radio operator [call sign WB2CRD].