The road ahead for EEs

-May 01, 2011

The road ahead for electrical engineers is likely to be crowded, with practi­tioners of multiple engineering disciplines accompanying EEs. For example, at the Automate 2011 show in Chicago in March, the robots on display incorporated considerable amounts of electronics, but bringing them to fruition required considerable mechanical engineering expertise as well.

Bill Schweber had a similar observation from his recent visit to BIOMEDevice Exposition and Forum, which he described in an April 7 EE Life post titled, “Sorry, EEs: it’s not all about you.” Schweber described the event as “…a vivid reminder of how electronic-design centric we sometimes are…. Seeing the exhibit floor and the conference sessions at the event made it clear, to paraphrase that cliché: it takes a multidisciplinary team to make a real product.”
Schweber also visited the co-located Design and Device Manufacturing event and came away with the impression that combinations of materials science, CAD/CAM, finite element analysis, and rapid prototyping can work to EEs’ advantage, if the EEs reach out to their counterparts in the other disciplines.

There may be more and more of these counterparts to reach out to. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010–11 Edition,” the number of EEs will remain at 2008 levels through 2018, while over that same period, the number of materials engineers will increase 9%; aerospace engineers, 10%; environmental engineers, 31%; and biomedical engineers, an impressive 72%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics attributes the lack of growth of EE jobs for designing communications equipment, defense-related equipment, medical electronics, and consumer products to foreign competition. Another factor may be a lack of engineers to take on the work that otherwise would have remained in the US.

Stephen Moore, senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, in an April 1 column titled, “We’ve Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers,” stated that in the US, nearly twice as many people work for the government as work in manufacturing. The next generation, he suggested, might prefer to work at the department of motor vehicles rather than design and build motor vehicles. Moore noted that surveys of college graduates indicate that many top performers seek the security of government jobs and are unwilling to take career risks.

That might well be a rational choice. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it in a March 6 column titled, “Degrees and Dollars,” “…the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.”

That’s true. Robots such as the ones I saw at Automate 2011 have already taken over most menial tasks, and as Krugman pointed out, computers will increasingly take over cognitive tasks as well. Engineers need to demonstrate that automation can enhance their efforts but not replace them in the drive for innovation. Looking for synergies among the various engineering disciplines may be a good place to start. T&MW

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