From the President March 2015

Mar 30, 2015

Robert Sims

The Value of an Engineering Education for Non-Engineers

What’s the value of an Engineering Education? Engineering majors are projected to be the top-paid bachelor’s degree graduates from the Class of 2015. That’s according to a recent survey by The National Association of Colleges and Employers. So the value of an engineering education for a career in engineering is pretty clear. But many people trained as engineers enter other lines of work. What is the value of an engineering education for them?

Let’s start with skills. A person graduating as an engineer is a problem solver. An engineer knows how to analyze data. He or she knows numbers and can use logic to make difficult decisions. Strong computer skills are a given. An engineer is a designer and a team player. These are skills prized in law, in medicine and in finance.

In business, too. ASME recently presented its prestigious Kate Gleason Award to Ursula Burns. Burns is a mechanical engineer who is now CEO and chairman of Xerox. Here is what Burns recently told about the value of her engineering training:

My entire existence, my business personality, my practices at work — how I lead, manage, and interact — the foundation of it all is my engineering education. I moved from engineering to business but the difference is not a difference at all. The synergy between the two is amazing.

Engineers sometimes find their way into the arts. Alfred Hitchcock studied at a technical and engineering school in London, and worked as a draftsman. We can presume he knew his way around the optics of camera lenses, and the mechanical systems of camera cranes and dollies. Those drafting skills must have served Hitchcock well when it came to sketching storyboards.

Another great director, Frank Capra, found an engineering background helpful when the motion picture industry was struggling during the transition to “talkies.” Capra graduated in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering from a college that would become the California Institute of Technology. More than many other young directors in the late 1920s, Capra understood how to use the movie industry’s emerging sound technology. 

Engineer Tom Scholz knew his way around sound, too. Scholz received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT. He started recording song demos in a home studio while working for Polaroid as a product design engineer. He went on to found the rock band Boston.

An engineering background frequently seems useful for politicians. President Jimmy Carter studied engineering in college. He became a submariner after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He did graduate work in nuclear reactor technology and nuclear physics after being chosen by Admiral Hyman Rickover for the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. President Carter became an Honorary Member of ASME in 1980.

Former U.S. Representative Pete Stark of California (D-CA) earned a bachelor’s degree in general engineering at MIT, and later received an MBA. Stark served in the House from 1973 to 2013. A currently-serving House member on the other side of the aisle is also an engineer. Joe Barton (R-TX) holds a bachelor’s in industrial engineering from Texas A&M, and a master’s in industrial automation from Purdue.

And then there are the Sununus, where mixing engineering and politics is a family tradition. John H. Sununu earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT. He served as governor of New Hampshire, and was White House Chief of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. His son, John E. Sununu, holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering, also from MIT. He served six years in the U.S. Senate.

There is a lot of engineering in the trajectory of a basketball, the spin of a football and in the deformation of a baseball when it’s struck with a bat. So it is possible that the study of dynamics, mechanics and kinematics contributed to the success of some star athletes who graduated from college with engineering and technical degrees. That list includes Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs, Danny Granger of the Indiana Pacers, and former ballplayer and TV color analyst Doug Glanville.

Engineers learn how to meet individual performance goals; they also learn how to manage teams of people. Many of my friends at ASME headquarters in New York are hoping that manager Joe Girardi can lead the Yankees back to the post season in 2015. Girardi earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern University.

So there is a lot to recommend for a degree in engineering. It usually leads directly to a good job and a great career. But people sometimes change the direction of their lives, and they sometimes find skills developed studying engineering, including such topics as thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, serve them well in other fields. For jobs in business, the arts, politics, and even on the ball field.

On a personal note, my youngest son has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in materials engineering, but has worked for many years in the business world where his engineering skills allowed him to be effective in project management, statistical analysis and logical decision making. His recommendations are respected because they are based on data.

I believe that it also important for every citizen to have some background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to be able to deal with the increasingly complex world that we live in. For example, it is important to be able to separate fact from fiction when purchasing things such as appliances, computers and automobiles, as well as to make appropriate choices on issues such as energy policy.

For those of you who are interested in learning more about how engineering skills enriched the careers of some well-known individuals, head over to Charles Murray’s Design News blog for an entertaining and informative slideshow called 18 People You Didn’t Know Were Engineers.

J. Robert Sims ASME President

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