Our politicians and news media talk a lot about the need for “investment” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing) programs, but they seldom back it up. They decry the low numbers of Americans seeking advanced degrees and foolishly assume it is because of lack of tuition funding. American engineers still go to graduate school; they just make the very rational decision to invest their money in an MBA or JD degree.
Companies used to consider engineers a tremendous asset; the assumption was a good engineer saved his firm the equivalent of his or her salary every year. Essentially the engineers “paid their own way.” Somewhere along the way that opinion flipped and technology became a commodity you could buy or license instead of developing in-house. Processes were changed to conform to the latest business executive’s best seller. Passion for design excellence was replaced with quarterly profits above all else.
As logical actors, young engineers quickly grasp that high starting salaries are not enough for a satisfying career. They see college classmates who took far less demanding classes start to climb the corporate ladder and get better pay and more influence. They either learn to accept it and go back to enjoying the things that attracted them to engineering in the first place — or they switch career tracks.
Imagine a world where Henry Ford or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs decided the only way to get ahead was to go to Law School. I don’t want to think about it either. So when advising youngsters on career choices it is important to be honest. As an engineer you’ll have to study hard while others party hard. You’ll get paid well to start and have to fight for every penny after that. You may have to change employers occasionally. In exchange, you’ll get to do really interesting things few people will understand. If that doesn’t sound like a great life plan, maybe an MBA or JD track is right for you. You can always exercise your killer math skills with Sudoko puzzles.