Just about every news outlet has written about the importance of Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education recently. Businesses report that they cannot find enough engineers domestically and advocate for greater STEM education in middle and high schools. Many believe that the US is losing its competitive edge and cite the lack of skilled engineers and scientists. Even President Obama has said that improving STEM education is one of his top priorities.
Beginning a half century ago, scientists and engineers were credited for doing amazing things at the time. They put a man on the moon, invented the pacemaker, and put a calculator in our pockets. Society regarded engineering as a highly respected profession. They were truly changing the world through their own research, hypotheses, and personal competitive motivation. Engineers in a corporation were responsible making products and discovering new applications for technology.
In high school, I enjoyed and excelled in my science and math classes. No one was surprised in 2005 that I graduated college with an engineering degree, much like about 60,000 others in the US. I believe I represented the ideal STEM graduate: I enjoyed math and science at a young age, pushed myself in high school, studied electrical engineering and graduated with an employment offer. On paper, I am part of the solution, but realistically I’m part of the problem. 8 years later I’m not an engineer, and never want to be again. Roughly one half of Americans with engineering degrees do not work as an engineer. If there is such a shortage of engineers, why aren’t these seemingly qualified people taking those jobs?
My short engineering career was spent creating circuits and software to meet the specifications in a product requirement document. I was lucky enough to work in an industry I love, and for an employer which gave me some freedom to visit customers and make product decisions outside of my job description. Unfortunately such freedoms are rare in many companies. Now days, most engineers are kept in offices far away from customers, they work to build the product which the marketers and designers define. I realized this after two years as an engineer, and re-enrolled in school so I could have more influence over product creation and definition.
Marketing departments increasingly carry much of the responsibility to define new products. R&D or more specifically the engineers, who were once the competitive edge and pulse of a company are now just an expense line item on the income statement. (It’s interesting to notice that R&D, Research and Design now refers to technical personnel and expenses, while actual product research and design increasingly happens in the marketing department.)
Design is becoming the new competitive advantage which companies are investing in. My experience here at AC4D has been life changing, and I’m excited to rejoin the workforce as a designer. I’ll get the opportunities to drive change in society, create new products, and apply technology in new way. Oddly, that was the same reason I wanted to be an engineer.
For the past 9 months at AC4D, we learned how to ‘create’ new products and services through generative research, ideation, synthesis and prototyping. But since every designer is not also an electrical, software, industrial and mechanical engineer at the same time, we create product requirement documents, we draft wireframes, and sketch mockups. We use these artifacts to communicate our intent to someone else with the skills to build make our idea into a reality. (e.g. engineers.) At AC4D, faculty and a students alike (myself included) will say things like “just find a developer” or “we need a mechanical engineer” in the same way a farmer may say “I need someone to pick these berries” or Apple wants to find the cheapest labor to “just assemble this iPhone.” Has engineering become a commodity resource?
Within the past few decades America began to outsource labor for textiles, electronics and internal processes among many other things. That’s not surprising as America’s economy is increasingly service based. Labor and knowledge processes which were once important part of a company became line items on an income statement, just like engineering is now. It’s no surprise that some American companies now either outsource engineering labor, or hire engineers abroad to lower their expenses. If an engineer in the US can follow a specification document or make a webpage look like the wireframe, why can’t an engineer in China or India? Why should a college student in America study a field which is treated as a commodity resource by companies?
To recruit America’s most creative and intelligent students into engineering, we need to redefine engineering as a profession, not push middle school children in to math and science classes. Universities and employers should work together to incorporate design into curriculum and job responsibilities.
Students like myself are attracted to engineering to define and make things, not execute some else’s designs. Let’s add generative research and ideation courses to engineering curriculum and teach engineers how to approach ill-defined problems and service design. Companies should break down the cultural barriers between marketing and engineering. They should include engineers on customer visits, and co-mingle the designers and engineers at the beginning of the new product development cycle. The cultural shift needed to redefine the field of engineering is itself a wicked problem, and I look forward to chipping away at it wherever I may end up next.