Once an engineer, always an engineer: It's an often-used phrase, usually applied to some former engineer who has just coldly and analytically dissected a complex problem. The message behind it is simple: In the way they approach obstacles, engineers are, well, different.
Indeed. And some recent good news is that the corporate world may finally be recognizing it in a positive way. Many college placement centers report that their engineering grads are now being pursued for non-technical positions, a phenomenon that would once have been unthinkable. At the University of Illinois, for example, investment and accounting firms routinely interview engineering grads who have no background in business. "Recruiters are coming in here from all kinds of non-engineering companies," reports Carl S. Larsen, assistant dean of engineering and professor of mechanical engineering. "Some of them want to move our students into management positions straight out of school."
Such trends may represent a renaissance of sorts in corporate thinking. But to engineers, the idea that there are universal advantages to their training is hardly new. "The logic and thought process that goes into engineering is applicable to just about anything," Larsen says.
Problem solvers. Indeed, engineering grads have long applied their training to other fields--sometimes with startling success. Former president Jimmy Carter is an engineer. So are retired General Norman Schwarzkopf and former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. Schwarzkopf and Sununu are both former engineering professors.
Similarly, law schools have learned that engineers make good law students, particularly in patent law. And bioengineering is now recognized as a desirable path for pre-medical students.
Almost universally, the one trait that engineers bring to these other fields is problem solving ability. Sununu, who served as Governor of New Hampshire before being named White House Chief of Staff, credits his engineering training for some of his greatest political successes. After earning a PhD in mechanical engineering, Sununu started his own consulting engineering firm before running for governor. As governor, he was widely credited with revamping the mental health delivery system in New Hampshire. The problem, he says, was a highly complex one that many politicians avoided. "As an engineer, you're trained to take a complicated problem, break it into its parts, solve the parts, and put it all back together," Sununu says. "Knowing how to do that is a tremendous asset in any walk of life."
Sununu believes that engineering creates an ideal foundation for a career in public service. At its most basic level, he says, engineering imbues students with good quantitative abilities, which he says are critical when dealing with large issues. "It's amazing how many people in public policy don't have a sense of the difference between millions, billions, and trillions," he says. "And that makes a difference, because good policy involves understanding the impact of those numbers."
Attention to detail. Engineers who have moved on to other professions say that engineering training also imparts organizational skills, attention to detail, and a powerful work ethic.
For the son of the former White House Chief of Staff, John E. Sununu, a U.S. Congressman from New Hampshire, says that his engineering training has helped him cope with numerous complex issues, including understanding the Social Security system, the tax code, and new environmental legislation. "Engineering naturally engenders attention to detail," Sununu says. "That may be what's currently missing in so many approaches to legislative politics. Too many legislators are concerned with the message, or the nuances of communication, rather than attention to detail."
Sununu concedes that an engineering education has one inherent weakness: the lack of training in communication skills. "Engineers by their nature, or maybe through their training, are not necessarily skilled orators," he says. "We are not communications experts or rhetoricians. But once we get into a position, we absolutely have the skill to serve effectively." During his 1996 campaign, Sununu says, he tried to focus voter attention on his analytical skills, rather than his oratory.
Among the many tools in the engineering repertoire, however, some say organizational skill may be the most important. Sununu says that organizational abilities helped him to handle the massive information influx encountered by a first year Congressman.
Similarly, Doug Glanville, a major league baseball player with the Philadelphia Phillies, says he used his systems engineering background to deal with the scheduling difficulties of an up-and-coming ballplayer. Before reaching the major leagues, Glanville says, he juggled off-season schedules in Puerto Rico and Arizona, while moving back and forth between the Chicago Cubs and its minor league ball club in Iowa.
Such skills may also be part-and-parcel of engineering's most unspoken trait: discipline. Engineering deans acknowledge that in most universities, engineering schools have posted some of the highest flunk-out and transfer rates, mainly because of the demands of the curriculum. "You can't fake your way through engineering school," notes John H. Sununu. "No level of glibness gets you though a thermodynamics exam."
That may be why, in an era when much of the mass media delights in portraying so-called "nerd" behavior, corporations are finding value in an engineering education. "To go through that type of program, you need a tremendous amount of discipline," adds Glanville. "You put in so much work to get the degree--by comparison, anything seems easier.
What this means to you
- Engineering skills are transferable to other disciplines
- Problem-solving, and attention to detail head the list of transferable skills