Is engineering as a career poised for a revival?

Do you want to be the next Gordon Gekko or Elon Musk?

Gorden Gekko’s bright red braces look soiled. Deep bags disfigure the once aggressive eyes of the veteran hedge fund manager. And around the belly, the former Wall Street shark has gone somewhat to seed

Victor Volt, former classmate, sits opposite. Unlike Gekko, Volt went into engineering, not finance. Once envious of his glamorous banking counterpart, Volt now glows, knowing the tables have been turned. Finance has fallen into disrepute, while science has become the undisputed highway to wealth and social status. Volt’s smile is, er … electric.

A fantasy? Perhaps. But some engineers’ daydreams about role reversal may not be quite so wide of the mark. That finance doesn’t carry its former cachet is undeniable after five years of crises. Hedge fund managers’ legendary fees are being disputed, as performance has palled. Even more mainstream bankers are confronted with critical questions about the value of much of what they do.

By the same token, science – and engineering in particular – may be poised for a revival. Hard figures are thin on the ground. But circumstantial evidence suggests interest in finance as a career is falling at many top business schools. While jobs are going fast in finance, there is vast and rising worldwide demand for engineers.

Recruiters at most leading engineering groups bemoan a “skills shortage” as they strive to fill vacancies. Many have turned to unconventional remedies to meet their needs. Big western groups have cast their nets ever wider, often establishing big and growing research and development centres in fast industrialising countries, like India and China, and encouraging immigration via sponsored visa entry programmes to meet shortages at home.

Economics suggests bigger financial inducements could also boost supply – though it may be a while yet before engineers start earning Gekko-style salaries.

But might interest and enrolment also be stimulated by less material inducements?

In electrical engineering, the world is desperately seeking solutions to an unrivaled range of issues. With the Earth’s population rising inexorably towards 9bn, the demand for power will surge dramatically. How can fast industrializing countries, like China or Brazil, meet their legitimate ambitions for higher standards of living without spewing out more pollution?  How can “clean” power sources, like wind and the sun, be harnessed effectively to meet rising electricity needs? And how can current industrial processes, whether in steel mills, paper plants or car factories, be streamlined and upgraded to consume less energy?

The names of the ground breaking entrepreneurs and researchers, like Bell, Edison or Tesla, have gone down in history for their seminal work in bringing power and communications into the home and workplace, transforming lifestyles. But, in electricity generation and distribution, the decades after their innovations were characterized more by building on and refining those early breakthroughs than by further such stunning discoveries. The way power is distributed today, for example, does not differ that radically from the work pioneered by Edison at the dawn of “the electric age.”

Now, however, the world is facing a new set of hurdles, with the massive challenges of population growth, resource shortage and pollution facing the engineers of the future.

Currently, there are not enough of them. Encouragingly, though, their numbers may gradually be rising as developing countries devote more efforts to teaching and training and, in many locations, more women enter what was once a male domain.

But status and social standing also play a part. Popular understanding about pollution, the impact of greenhouse gases and the implications of climate change have arguably already boosted the status of science. Appreciation for the potential of new solutions, like renewable energy, has also risen. And those sceptics who suggested the days of towering technological discovery were over may also have to eat their words: late last year, for example, ABB, the Swiss electrical engineering group, overcame a decades old obstacle in the physics of electrical power by developing the first high voltage direct current circuit breaker – a discovery since accorded widespread recognition in the scientific community and promising a transformation in how electricity is transmitted.

It may be a while before Victor Volt beats Gordon Gekko in the bragging rights. But a realignment in the attraction and prestige of careers may no longer be quite such a pipedream.

Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Gregory Hollings. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.



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Gregory Hollings

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