Does the World Understand Engineers?
When I was in college, one of my classmates jested that "an engineer is one who can multiply 2×2 and get approximately 4."
James R. Warner
Simplex System Controls Inc.
I Dare Any Recent College Graduate
I dare the average recent college graduate to correctly tell me just about anything analog. How many grew up with it as a hobby and how many were told by counselors that this is a hot market to be in? Better yet, I would like to give the average BSEE or MSEE a toilet paper roll, some wire, foil and other household items and ask him to build me a radio. Granted, I may have to provide the headphones or earpiece but I’ll bet that with all the logic theory they could not do it.
Ask one what a variable transconductance tube is or what is “Gamma correction” and you’re guaranteed a blank stare. I started this about 1960 and had to make all my parts from scratch and understand what they did, even down to using the oxide coating on a Gilette blue blade with a cats’ whisker as a detector. What Galena, I couldn't get it. Now, after 40 years as a hobby and 30 as a career, some totally inexperienced kid is going to take my place? Good luck with training costs.
I am 53 and had the indignity of recent grads making more because of the college they went to, so I was ungrateful of ego trips and stupid questions—but not hostile. I bicycle a lot, and health is perfect: So, that’s not a factor. However, having to pay for eventual retirement might be.
I worked at ISS/Sperry/Univac back in the early 80s, when a Minnesota company (MPI?) bought them out. Vested retirement was 20 years work. All the layoffs were between 18- and 19-year veterans—some with as little as a few weeks to go. Needless to say there were plenty of lawsuits. But, Reagan was President (Nancy), so they did not get very far.
Having worked for smaller startups with stock, I have never had this problem, but have never had a company last long enough to cash in.
If You'll Excuse Me
Greetings Mr. Davis:
Your editorial on Age or Wage Bias grabbed my attention. Having been in the industry for 40 years, I can assure you that the subject has come up before and most likely will again. Having hit the ripe old age of 62, and considering retiring, I have these additional comments. I went swimming in my son's pool yesterday. Not much—just easy laps for 15, 20 minutes or so. Today I'm tired and generally sore. In as much as my job depends on my energetically running around getting things done, I'm not interested. A younger man would do it better.
I have a technical skill; I bring vast experience to the problems I get to deal with. But the technology has changed over the years. The burning issues of my early carrier are by and large resolved. I could learn something new. But the ease with which new ideas can be comprehended has faded. In addition, I'm tired and not all that interested—a younger man would do it better. I'm still of value to my company because my arcane art knowledge is still needed, but those days are numbered.
As for engineers over 40 not getting into management, that's a different issue. I became an engineer, had the intellectual energy for doing engineering, because I had low tolerance for people stuff. Managers must work with and through people. Their individual intellectual contributions get in the way of their doing management. A personality sorting happens as time goes by. While an engineer may be able to learn a new technology, learning the people skills is damn near impossible. The engineer's lack of people skills is pretty obvious to all by age 30: It's pretty well cast in concrete by age 40. I used to believe otherwise, but I don't any more.
It's been good writing this note. If you'll excuse me, it's time to find an empty conference room for a nap.
Age/Wage Bias?—Try Consulting
My general philosophy is that cost control is necessary in a competitive free market system and labor costs are just as important as other costs. Hiring managers have a fiscal responsibility to get the most value/productivity for their personnel dollars. So laying off the more expensive workers, if their productivity per dollar is less (and who may on average have been around longer and enjoyed salary creep during good times), is a valid business decision, not age discrimination. Also, when downsizing it may be necessary to keep a core of experienced people to rebuild when growth and hiring is expected to resume. Laying off those who will not still be in the work force when hiring resumes (e.g., they will retire) might be a valid business decision—even though it is based primarily on age.
However, it has been my experience as a middle manager that many hiring managers have no idea how to determine the knowledge and qualifications of job applicants, how to evaluate productivity or other contribution of current employees, or, when downsizing, how to factor in the future cost of rebuilding their wokforce. The Dilbert syndrome is alive and well, but not widespread in successful businesses (too many incompetent managers will wreck a business).
When looking for employment after being downsized several years ago at age 60, I am sure I suffered age discrimination as follows: Younger people I knew professionally were given job offers even though I know I was better qualified.
“Your salary is too high”—I don't have a salary now. Offer a salary you think is appropriate, I can say no. Failure to offer is prima facie evidence of age discrimination.
“I want a person who will grow with the company for years to come”—this is not a valid consideration unless the company can document that typical employees do in fact stay with the company for years.
“How do I know you have the energy and endurance to meet our demanding schedules?” Some companies are slave drivers. Tell me your schedules, maybe I don't want to work for you! Energy and endurance?—come jogging with me.
The pattern here is that age is often used as an indication of some other characteristic that can and should be measured more directly. In these cases it is discrimination.
My personal solution: Offer services as a consultant. A well structured consulting contract greatly reduces cost-of-labor risk for the company (my offer included a clause “company may terminate this contract at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all, paying only for services rendered up to the time of termination notice”). Consulting is a hard sell, but it got me through a few years to social security and retirement.
Tom Turner, Newport, R.I.
Your editorial reminds me of a science fiction story I read a few years back (I forget it's name) regarding nanotechnology villainy. A pretty chilling prospect if it comes to pass as written. This would be the reason for demanding the technology be externally fueled, to limit its propagation. Encoding schemes will minimize unintentional propagation, but not from malicious intent.
For better or worse, this technology, like all other issues with a moral or ethical impact, will not be stopped or even protected by committee or legislation. There will always be someone with the will and the resources to adapt or develop technology for their own purposes—legal or not.
Restricting research and development gives all the advantage to others (e.g. criminals, hostile countries, and terrorists), while depriving the world of the potent benefits. The most current example is cloning. Humans will be cloned, and soon, laws notwithstanding. But already some of the best researchers are leaving for other countries.
So I say, apply sensible guidelines, but don't be too restrictive. When problems do occur, and they certainly will, we'll be much better prepared to deal with them.
Nanotechnology: Let It Happen
I have been reading small but very tantalizing articles on atomic nanotechnology for many years now, and all I can say is let it happen. The $679,000,000 is a great way to spend tax dollars and the government should even make a much larger contribution. Rearranging atoms can solve so many of the major problems on this planet in not only medicine and electronics but even problems like solving world hunger and fuel problems. Any holdback in this science would seem foolhardy.
We are looking at the start of a science that ultimately could end up as the replicator machines used on the starship enterprise: Press a button and have a steak.
Thinking in terms of change is it a new frontier that could change the way we think about manufacturing? For sure. But the long term benefits to mankind would far outweigh any negative scenarios that we could imagine.
Full speed ahead on this technology.
Nanotechnology: Separating Wheat from Chaff
Mr. Sam Davis,
I'll attempt to answer the questions you posed. It's a good thing and a resounding success with air bags and pressure transducers, also accelerometers and gyros. Unfortunately I consider it bad in developing small surveillance sensors. I don't see it as a threat to power electronics. Assembling a device atom by atom will prove too costly in most cases. The hype in this field rivals P. T. Barnum. Common sense tells me that the construction of diamond crystals from the carbon in coal is unlikely when the tremendous pressure required to do it on the macro level is considered. This must translate to very large repelling force in attempting to construct a diamond crystal atom by atom. Looking into tiny momentum wheels (yes, the craze has hit Space too), I contacted Sandia Labs concerning their electro-static MEMS motor and got into a contentious conversation. It turns out that the motor has not been characterized in engineering terms and hence cannot be used in design. It is effectively a toy.
It is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. As an older engineer, I remember the days when the engineering profession was very conservative in its claims.
Today, unfortunately, it rivals the pharmaceutical and medical fields in wild, unsubstantiated claims. It looks like Nanotechnology has more to offer than tunnel diodes or cold fusion!
Core Loss Calculations From Clifford Jamerson
Clifford explained the "Apparent Frequency Method" of core loss calculation very well. You could even go one step further and use the apparent frequency method for BOTH sides of the flux swing if they're at different rates (as in a flyback) and multiply by the duty cycle of the rising and falling portion of the cycle. I've used this method when fine tuning loss calculations.
You can actually measure the difference in the total loss of the power supply and the results coincide well with that prediticed by the apparent frequency method.
Sr. Principle Engineer
Airborne Electronic Systems
Sounds like another way for the system to make money, and punish us (again) for being engineers. We are already underpaid, overworked and under appreciated. Now we have to adhere to some ethical standard, created by a bureaucrat, who probably has no engineering background. Spare me. I'm glad I don't have to get through school in this day and age. I just feel sorry for the future engineers; college is difficult enough already. This seems like something invented by people with too much time on their hands.
Web address: www.cornell-dubilier.com
Need for Ethics Enhancement in Engineering Community
I agree with your September 2001 editorial outlining the need for ethics enhancement within the engineering community. Starting this in college is excellent. I don’t think an entire college course should be directed at this topic, but rather a reinforcement of these values in several areas of the standard courses. Many universities now require signing “honesty” pledges for independent studies. This is directed toward tendencies to plagiarize or work as groups in independent study projects (exams, homework, labs, etc…). ABET seems concerned that students are introduced to various ethical work practices and encouraged to implement this in the future.
Membership in student chapters of the IEEE, for example, would broaden students’ knowledge and enhance their acceptance of ethical practices. (see the IEEE Code of Ethics below). Keep in mind: This is a vague area for most practicing engineers who are competing for recognition, job security and advancement. This is not only needed at the college level but at the professional level as well. Companies should consider requiring adherence to ethical practices (such as that outlined by the IEEE) as condition of work.
IEEE Code of Ethics
We, the members of the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct and agree:
- To accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;
- To avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist;
- To be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data;
- To reject bribery in all its forms;
- To improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences;
- To maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;
- To seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others;
- To treat fairly all persons regardless of such factors as race, religion, gender, disability, age, or national origin;
- To avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action;
- To assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics.
Thanks for bringing this subject to our attention.
Senior Electrical Engineer
So Much for Even a Little Stability
I hope and pray the salary study you cited in your editorial is skewed to the low end. If not, it makes me wonder why any of us would stay in the engineering profession.
I am an employee of a large company in the computer arena. I work on computer peripherals. My background is two masters’ degrees in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering. I am working, essentially, as an electrical manufacturing engineer. My work history includes about 25 years in the engineering field, including a 20-year stint in the aerospace/defense sector. I live and work in San Diego.
Based on the numbers you published, and doing a little creative algebra, I should be among the highest paid folks in the country with comparable background—and at somewhere in the mid $70Ks. I am somewhat above that level.
The low end of the spectrum (engineers fresh out of school) might be pretty accurate. Several years ago (~1993), I engaged an executive search firm (a costly mistake never to be repeated). My counselor estimated the going rate for new hires at about $45K at that time. I suspect he was a bit optimistic, but with a little wage inflation in the interim, that value seems pretty reasonable. The bottom rate is probably a bit less sensitive to the geographic and industry variables than is the top end.
Recently the news reported that the median home in nearby Orange County was running well in excess of $300K. San Diego is probably a little lower—but not much. The Silicon Valley/SF Bay area is supposed to be even more expensive than we are, and Seattle is supposed to be high also—Ergo, much of the West Coast engineering community. At a recommended maximum 35% of household income to housing, it would take well over $100K for a family just to survive here, never mind the multi-million spreads on the hill. The average engineer—at say 10 years' experience—would not be able to cut it, unless his/her spouse were nearly as well paid.
Another way to look at it is the rate of increase. At a $45K starting level, to arrive at $75K in twenty years (assuming no change to the current financial climate), one would need to a achieve a dismal average increase on the order of 2.5% per year—on par with the inflation rate. Thus, no performance bonuses, only COLAs. But we all know that the first few years in the engineering field tends to be where the steepest salary changes occur. So most of us should be at virtual stand-still salary wise.
My other data point comes from a friend and former coworker who was “let go” about a year ago. This guy had rather comparable position and background to mine, and ultimately ended up at another company in the computer sector. He did not betray the actual offer he accepted, but indicated it was in the $80K to 90K range. Further, during the interview process, he became convinced that salaries at this company (where I still work) tended to be rather low as compared with the industry in general.
So all in all, I think that the rates you cite must be low. Either that, or we had better all go get real estate licenses.
I have some thoughts about changing companies. Some years ago, a magazine artice gave some statistics that showed it was slightly better, from a salary standpoint, to change once (but only once) during the first 10 years after college. My experience is that the electronic industry is largely populated by the merry-go-round crowd—folks who never stay longer than a few years at any job or in any company. I doubt that these engineers end up ahead in the salary game, for all their switching, and they probably pay dearly with regards to vacation time, pension and 401K eligibility, and other benefits where the rewards tend to be metered out based on longevity.
On the flip side of that, I think it increasingly difficult to keep a job for 20 or more years. Companies seem to have ways of making it tough to reach retirement age. Increasingly, they are offering early outs (often an offer you can't refuse), and a glint of age-discrimination is clearly present in some organizations, including my own. The opportunity to hire a young kid for 40% less salary is hard to refuse in this cutthroat economy—even if the company gives up critical experience. And frankly, seasoned workers are usually less willing to put their entire personal lives on the altar of corporate sacrifice.
A few years back, when my last job ended due to a plant closure, we were all invited to participate in company-sponsored outplacement services. At the introductory seminar, our coaches gave us some pretty grim news. They told us that the day of the 40-year, diploma-to-gold-watch job was over. We could expect to have to change jobs, even career-direction over the course of our lives—Maybe even several times. The news was even gloomier. They considered the idea of a permanent employee to be on the way out. (Now we all know that there’s nothing permanent about being permanent. Someone could show any of us the door on any given day. But there was always a little more of a sense of security when you had a “permanent” job. At least you thought you could stand the risk of taking out a mortgage in a pricey part of the country.) Anyway, the wave of the future, according to these prognosticators, would be the contract employee. Engineers would be hired to do a job for a set period of time, then let go. Our counselors expected that permanent jobs would be a real rarity in the near future—So much for even a little stability. But it kind of makes the question about 20-year employees a moot one.
Ethics Education Should Be a Requirement
I could not avoid laughing when I read your Editor’s Viewpoint in the September 2001 issue. The cause for this amusement, however, is rooted in my MBA studies and NOT in my Engineering schooling.
Two different occasions had sprung to mind. The first was from a “Business Law and Ethics” class, where the subject of confession under duress was discussed. It was quite enlightening to see that the class was divided almost entirely along national origin lines: Almost all foreign-born students (myself among them) promoted strict adherence to the Fifth Amendment, while all American-born students advocated a more practical (read ”opportunistic”) approach to the situation. It was gradually revealed during the discussion that most advocates of the practical approach were not fully aware of the exact wording of the Fifth Amendment, and even less aware of its evolution through various interpretation by the judicial bodies.
The second occasion was from another class concerning business strategy, where the subject of Doctors’ ownership of testing labs was discussed. Most of the discussion revolved around issues of conflict of interest, but some off-hand remarks revealed that less than half of the students in class were aware of the Hippocratic Oath, and only half of those ever read the exact wording of the oath.
Some readers may interpret this letter to mean that although Ethics education is recommended for engineers, it should be even more so for future business managers. I believe this is immaterial. Ethics education should be a requirement for everyone.
Ethics is something each one of us has to address every day—either on the job or elsewhere. Even if we do not have the formal education, we still formulate our own Ethics rules. Some of those rules may be beneficial for us alone because they are opportunistic and exploitative; other rules may lead us into repeated conflicts because they are formulated with little regard to life's complexity; and yet some other rules may actually be well thought out, to the extent that we would feel proud teaching them to others. Formal education (if done right) may help us formulate the third kind of rules with (hopefully) much less struggle.
It should be noted that in this context, the definition of Right and Wrong is not relevant either. The decision of what is right or wrong should be left to the individual, to think and act as their conscience dictates. The ability to think clearly and make moral decisions based on this thinking is what should be taught.
What’s Ethical and What’s Moral
Dear Mr. Davis,
After reading your article, I found myself thinking about an experience that I had while studying Engineering at Marquette more than a decade ago.
Marquette is indeed one of the universities that requires philosophy and religion courses for all Engineering students. However, I think my greatest lesson in Engineering ethics came from an extracurricular activity. The entrepreneur club at Marquette had invited a speaker to come in and talk about product develpment. Somewhere in the discussion, the tide changed to the ethical side of business. This man told us that he was at one time an employee of a firm that manufactured toasters. He explained to us the bloody nature of the business. Apparently, the laws at that time (and maybe now?) allowed toaster design to generate a maximum of 5 or so toaster related deaths per year. This man further explained that the majority of the deaths were in the toddler age bracket. This sounded pretty neutral until he went on to explain that this 5-death-per-year mortality rate could be eliminated by increasing product cost by $10 or so. It was his opinion that this would be the moral thing to do. However, since the law (i.e. ethics) allowed for a certain mortality rate, none of the competing toaster manufacturers were willing to take the first step towards a much higher product cost and consequently risking lower profits.
This man obviously had a heart for children, as his voice became more shaky as he proceeded in his explanation. I couldn’t help wondering if this person was punishing himself for being ethical and contributing to the five deaths per year figure, while continuously questioning if he should quit, or make an issue, etc.. I didn't have the heart to ask. He concluded in tears that there is a huge difference between what is ethical and what is moral. The two should NEVER be confused.
Maybe this is the greatest lesson that I ever learned at Marquette, and it wasn’t in an accredited class, too. And maybe it’s a lesson that the folks who publish Webster need to learn also. But isn’t this the way we usually learn ethics anyway? How many people are really changed by classes that are mandatory? How many people are really changed by sermons in church that they are forced (either by self guilt or others) to listen to? Ethics begins in society. It’s how the news anchor person interprets the news to us. It’s the sitcoms on TV. It’s in the conversation between friends on the golf course. And most of all, it starts with our own self-directed hunger to discover what is truth.
Sr. Development Engineer