Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Joe Engineer Indicator

Sometime ago I attended an alumni gathering arranged by my old college's Provost. Since he was making the effort to come such a long way I figured I had to go - plus it was good to see old friends again. The reason for this post, however, is not to share maudlin reminiscences (well, maybe a little..).

By way of background, my alma mater was a very competitive place, priding itself of creating "well-rounded" engineers by demanding grueling study and constant testing. Despite the rigour, or perhaps because of it, there was a Marines-like esprit de corps about the place, with few students choosing the easier science and management programs, also on offer. If any less-dedicated students managed to survive freshman year, they were hit with a sophomore year so outrageously demanding that a quarter of the incoming class dropped out. The campus store did a thriving business selling t-shirts with TEXUX emblazoned on them (no, it's not about Texas - phonetic accent is on the "U").

Did I say The Marines? An understatement. The faculty and staff were most aptly comparable to the Spanish Inquisition: you could choose between being converted into Joe Engineer or burning at the stake. On occasion they managed both: the very first student to ever graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA did it 110 years after the school was founded.   He was actually my classmate and during graduation ceremonies some faculty members were so disappointed at the apparent laxity they grumbled the place was going to pot...

Not that we expected anything different, mind you. The very first thing they told us during freshman induction was: "Look to your left, look to your right - four years from now, one of you won't be at graduation". And they were not sad or ashamed about it, either.  Oh no, those SOB's were proud if not downright gleeful of their abilities to wean us out mercilessly. It was considered perfectly acceptable to hold mid-term exams on the very first day after spring break. While others hit the Florida beaches, we were expected to hit calculus.

You should have a pretty good picture of the place by now as it was some 30 years ago: Engineer Boot Camp. If you still think I'm exaggerating, how about this: the Dean of Students had the habit of patrolling the dorms at night in the company of a huge dog trained to sniff out controlled substances.

 Not A Pet, Tech-nically Speaking

Under the circumstances, my showing up for the Provost's alumni dinner could be better explained by the Stockholm Syndrome...

Imagine my surprise, then, when during the after-dinner presentation the Provost put up a slide showing that most seniors last year (35%) found jobs in.... finance. You could have pushed me over with a feather, because when I graduated my interest in financial markets - and eventual employment at an investment bank - were considered heresy. For many years I was the only member of my class to be employed in finance: almost exactly 0.35%. Go ahead, do the 100-to-1 math, because that's a darn good parallel to the financial and credit cycle from bust to bubble. Though the Provost came to the school years after my graduation and thus did not know me at the time, he called me a "pioneer" during the dinner. I guess I was flattered.

Funny thing is, lately I'm becoming increasingly interested in all things technical. You think...?

Am I a living, breathing Joe Engineer Contrarian Indicator? Could be...


  1. Hmmm... The *last* thing this world needs are more financial engineers. Should we expect a bigger bubble next, or perhaps a more intricate house of cards?

  2. I hope so Hell. We never seem to celebrate our engineering achievements in the UK. Its just all taken for granted.

    What could those 35% of achieved if they'd stayed out of financial engineering, and a financial Dutch Disease hadn't plagued the West?

  3. "Financial engineering"... now there's an oxymoron.

    Something like "Scientific astrology".

  4. We use engineers for building and demolition, not usually build to self-demolate though.

    Like an engineer friend of mine once said to a question about putting a less than recommended beam in the house, "if an HVAC technician screws up the heating controls people get a little warm or cool, if an engineer screws up the stress calculations people die.

  5. I'm going to guess you received your degree many moons ago.

    A friend of mine is signing up his son for a 4 year $40k/year college in mechanical engineering. He's doing most of it on loans, some cash.

    Since you also likely need a MS degree in this area I'm asking your opinion if the so called 'shortages' and scarcity in this field justify such exorbitant tuition.

    Would you fork up that much cash to get a B.S engineering degree?

  6. "Would you fork up that much cash to get a B.S engineering degree?"

    I truly have no ideas on this, except one: does the student really love the subject (engg.) or is he/she going that way because there is a so-called shortage?

    If the former, the answer to your question is "yes, of course" (what price happiness? and it's only money).

    If the latter, stay away.

  7. My sister got a chemical engineering degree. One person in her class got a job in the industry.
    A technical degree was not an automatic money earner over the last thirty years. That in itself is a contrary indicator.

  8. I have to comment on this. I heard a similar thing from my Freshman Calc professor at UMASS in 1985, except he said 'Look to your left,look to your of you will not be hear next year!'
    My suspicion is the level of torture is not the same today as it was back then. I've seen engineers become bankers, realtors and everything but, making me believe that they were not encouranged (as perhaps we were...) to switch majors if they weren't serious about engineering!