In our last episode, we talked about efforts to predict the future. They were either spectacularly wrong (but entertaining) or vaguely plausible (but a little obvious). Both these efforts shared the technique of extrapolating some trend, to the point of either absurdity, or numbingly self-evident banality. The exercise, however, made me start thinking in terms of our engineering future, a trendy topic considering the President of the United States himself made the subject part of his recent State of the Union Address.
But, first, a confession: While I have been critical of forecasts that do little more than extrapolate trends, I have at the same time been scathingly critical of those who stray from that safe path. The reason is, trends are measured, while interpretations of those trends are not--they are opinions. Not that speculating on interpretations or guessing at underlying causes is by itself a bad idea. My beef is with those who try to present their opinions as if they were on the same plane as measured data. So, I hereby warn you that what follows is purely my opinion, a speculation on what the future holds for electronics engineering, based on a mixture of data, impression, and a few bad dreams I had.
I see two major forces driving engineering today. One is idealistic, and concerned with the greater good of all. The other is strictly mercenary, and concerned only with economic gains.
Young people, I suspect, are fairly idealistic when entering engineering. I base this on the observations that 1) young people tend to be idealistic, and 2) engineering doesn't pay that well. (After all, it would be silly to think anyone was going to retire to the Riviera after 20 years of sifting through online IC databooks.) So, if they're going into it for anything, it's going to have to be something other than money.
Engineering as practiced today, on the other hand, is nothing if not a very practical way of living and of looking at things. It's a very spartan kind of life, and it is becoming more so as emphasis on production rather than on innovation waxes. Draw up specs, get a design together, test it, get it out the door, and do the same thing tomorrow. It's all measured against your local currency, so if love, ecology, and curing homelessness aren't priced in, then they aren't part of the equation, and don't get considered.
That may be one reason why we're not seeing more young people, in the US anyway, flock into engineering. (In developing countries, where engineering is still a big step up, or where a command economy is directing kids into engineering, then naturally we are still going to see hordes of youngsters entering engineering. But not in the US.) That's prediction one--young people in the US will continue to see engineering as the career equivalent of Brussels sprouts for dinner. Didn't take a genius to figure that one out.
This prediction leads to another prediction, namely, that innovations will continue to take back seats to manufacturing prowess. Why? Because kids are risky dreamers, and companies don't want that. They want sure-thing assembly lines, where the only innovation is cheaper manufacturing, regardless of how many kiddie science fairs they sponsor. And kids don't want boring things like that. So, barring the success of something like cheap cold fusion, and a new golden age of leisure that will allow dreams to be better explored and implemented, I'd say we are going to see a slower pace of innovation overall in our profession, as kids stay out of the field, and companies stress sure-fire ways to making dough. In more dramatic words, we're seeing a waning of much of what makes engineering noble.
That won't be sustainable, because regardless of how the true soul of engineering is ignored, it will flower. When it does, it simultaneously destroys and raises up whole industries. Remember AT&T tried to suppress many of their inventions for decades, so as not to injure their existing businesses. But, instead, AT&T itself was destroyed. (Yes, the name survived, but that's about all they had left to sell.)
We're now in a similar situation globally. We'll explore it in the next installment of the Noble Profession. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.
Regarding Rich's comment on new engineers being idealistic and about the profession not paying well, I have a slightly different opinion. When I was in college (1983-1988), I figured that getting an EE degree was the quickest, surest, way to make the most money. Not that that was the only reason I chose this path, the proof being that several decades later I'm still doing it and have not gone to the Dark Side (management, marketing, or (the horror!) sales). But I did reason that there were slower ways (for example, an MD or PhD degree), or riskier ways (start a business (legit or selling drugs!)), or taking a sure but very low paying job (grocery store, McDonald's, digging ditches, etc.). It's always amazing to me that the high paying glamor jobs out there like acting, defense attorney, CEO have such variation in salary. I mean, for every millionaire there are probably hundreds of people just scraping by. We engineers pretty much don't have that problem, not in the US anyway. Our salary range is pretty small.
"the reward is minimal".
A very real reward of designing and optimizing products and systems is observing the impact they have on society and getting that feeling one experiences at the moment of idea conception and again at successful implementation when the idea has just been realized.
I have always said: "Engineering is a disease not a profession" (not in a bad way). Students are drawn to engineering because they want to create and build things. The current situation with students today is one of both what can I do to make enough money to have the things I want AND what do I like doing. All too often, bright potential engineers are lured from design into business because "that's where all the money is". Until our culture pays more attention to lasting things of value instead of last nights sporting event we will continue to encourage young people (by our focus and attentions) to pursue sports from elementary school through college. This concentration on entertainment and relaxation perhaps dissuades students from engineering degrees as the amount of effort is significant and the rewards are minimal (unless you really have the bug to engineer).
Hence the trend to major new enterprises, headed by kids, in software rather than hardware (Google, Facebook, Groupon, etc). You don't need major capital investment to start a software/Web/social networking company. Personal agendas aside, young innovative thinkers will follow the path of least resistance
When I was in the research institute, a fellow told me that science and engineering are hand-in-hand. This fellow was doing astronomy for your information. He said physics can go so far w/o any proof. Then, engineering will take the knowledge and start building various products. A few of these products will help further scientific investigation. In another words, there are a cycle between them. It is somewhat true.
Looking at the shifting of industry in UK and in US, you can draw a scenario. When a country is well developed and economic is thriving, there will be more talents jumping into management and finance than to science and engineering. After all, who want to keep their hand dirty for their whole life?
However, if we look into longer period of time in developed countries, you will find a supply and demand graph in every segment. As the supply of engineers goes down, the salary goes up.
At the end of the day, it is a product which transform a natural resource into dollars. New products will always be made. New market will always be created. Engineers will always exist one way or the other. America may be suffering from lacking of new blood joining the work force. Who knows what's going to happen 50 years from now?