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Fuel the Fire; Don’t Burn Out November 1, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Last month, we discussed some of the factors affecting the attraction of young people to engineering, math, and science. This perennial issue seems to have as many solutions as there are practicing engineers. Existing programs, such as the West Point Bridge Design contest and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) ASCEville.com are intended to address youth directly and provide hands-on educational opportunities. But in most cases, such programs depend on the active participation of practicing engineers — many of whom have difficulty finding the time or motivation to volunteer. Are today’s engineers ready to accept the personal responsibility to develop the next generation, or are we ever more dependent on universities to provide the foundations upon which we then may build? And what of the subsequent laments that such schools do not adequately prepare graduates to enter the workforce?

Rather than address this as an external problem, it may serve us well to look inward. I am reminded of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s statements during his Congressional testimony shortly after his historic ditching in the Hudson River. While engineers as a group may not share the financial distress or corporate politics plaguing today’s airline industry, his words strike a familiar tone:

“I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps. I am worried that the [profession] will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest. The current experience and skills of our country’s professional airline pilots come from investments made years ago, when we were able to attract the ambitious, talented people who now frequently seek professional careers elsewhere. That past investment was an indispensable element in our commercial aviation infrastructure, vital to safe air travel and our country’s economy and security.”

Somehow, the once-glamorous aviation industry faces the same shortages and challenges as engineering. Sullenberger has a unique forum for expressing this concern, but it nevertheless affects us all. I speculate that he and other pilots would and do encourage their own children to fly for pleasure as private pilots, and would promote the airlines were it not for the various trials that come with them. In other words, it is not the job itself that is discouraging, it is the political, emotional, and business baggage that breed conflict, stress, and depression — in short, there may be only a few fortunate souls that still find aviation — and by analogy, engineering — fun.

Again, Dr. John Medina provides some biological background for this phenomenon. Last time, I mentioned that learning and memory are affected by experiences that attract and hold our attention. There is another, more insidious, aspect of modern work that has just as significant an impact on our ability to learn and adapt. Medina states that “the perfect storm of occupational stress appears to be a combination of two malignant facts: a) a great deal is expected of you, and b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.” Both of these are present to some degree in every workplace, but especially those of young graduates still learning the ropes and identifying organizational boundaries. Even worse, however, is the potential cycle of passionless, rote problem-solving.

Simply stated, if the industry does expect much from its young engineer interns without providing them the tools with which to succeed — whether through school or work — we not only harm them individually, but cut ties to those who will follow them in the future. This occupational stress not only reduces efficiency and problem-solving skills on the job, but saps the passion needed to encourage anyone else to enter the profession in the first place. If we are unable to keep our own jobs interesting and fuel the fire that got us into the industry, bridge contests and pamphlets will never make up the shortfall. As one of my ever-cheerful colleagues would often retort to almost any workplace conflict, “You have to love your job.”

— from Insider’s View, October 2009



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