ON ENGINEERING AS A CAREER

August 1, 2019

August 1, 2019

 

We are approaching back-to-school time and many youngsters attending college in their freshman/sophomore years will be asked to select a major to study. This month’s article provides my pitch on why some should consider engineering as a career.

 

In a very broad sense, engineering is a term applied to the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences, gained by study, experience, and practice, is applied to the efficient use of the materials and forces of nature. The term engineer denotes an individual who has received professional training in both pure and applied science, but was often used in the past to describe the operator of an engine, as in the term locomotive engineer. In modern times, these occupations became known as crafts or trades.

 

There are five major branches of engineering, listed below in alphabetical order.

 

  1. Chemical Engineering
  2. Civil Engineering
  3. Electrical Engineering
  4. Environmental Engineering
  5. Mechanical Engineering

 

One could also add to this engineering list the following fields: aeronautical, astronautical, geological, industrial, marine, military, managerial, mining, naval, petroleum, structural, and the recent addition of nanotechnology. However, since I am a chemical engineer working in both the chemical and environmental fields, chemical and environmental engineering are primarily addressed in the sections to follow.

 

PROBLEM SOLVING

The engineer (and to a lesser degree the scientist) is known for his problem-solving ability. It is probably this ability more than any other that has enabled many engineers to rise to positions of leadership and top management within their companies. In problem-solving, considerable importance is attached to a proper analysis of the problem, to a logical recording of the problem solution, and to the overall professional appearance of the finished product of the calculations.

 

The value of an engineer is usually determined by his/her ability to apply basic principles, facts, and methods in order to accomplish some useful purpose. In this modem age of industrial competition, the ultimate definition of a useful purpose is usually based on a tangible profit of monetary value. It is not sufficient, therefore, to have a knowledge and understanding of physics, chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, stoichiometry, thermodynamics, the unit operations, chemical technology, and other related engineering and scientific subjects; he/she must also have the ability to apply this knowledge to practical situations, and, in making these applications, recognize the importance of the dollar sign.

 

Certain methods of logic and techniques of calculation are fundamental to the solution of many problems, and there is a near infinite number of methods. Words such as creative, ingenuity, original, etc., appear in all these approaches. What do they all have in common? They provide a systematic, logical approach to solving problems, and what follows is this author’s definition of a generic approach.

 

The methodology of solving problems has been discussed by most mathematicians and logicians since the days of Aristotle. Heuristic (“serving to discover”) is the term often given to this study of the methods and rules of solving problems. Nearly always, a stepwise approach to the solution is desirable. The broad steps are:

 

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Devising a plan
  3. Carrying out the plan
  4. Looking back

 

HISTORY OF ENGINEERING

In terms of history, the engineering profession as defined today is usually considered to have originated shortly after 1800. However, many of the “processes” associated with this discipline were developed in antiquity. For example, filtration operations were carried out 5000 years ago by the Egyptians. Operations such as crystallization, precipitation, and distillation soon followed. Others evolved from a mixture of craft, mysticism, incorrect theories, and empirical guesses during this period.

 

In a very real sense, the chemical industry dates back to prehistoric times when people first attempted to control and modify their environment, and it developed as did any other trade or craft. With little knowledge of science and no means of chemical analysis, the earliest “engineers” had to rely on previous art and superstition. As one would imagine, progress was slow. This changed with time.

 

Industry in the world today is a sprawling complex of raw-material sources, manufacturing plants, and distribution facilities which supply society with thousands of products, most of which were unknown over a century ago. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, an increased demand arose for individuals trained in the fundamentals of these processes. This demand was ultimately met by engineers.

 

The technical advances of the 19th century greatly broadened the field of engineering and introduced a large number of the aforementioned engineering specialties. The rapidly changing demands of the socioeconomic environment in the 20th and 21st centuries have widened the scope even further. One need only review the various branches of engineering listed earlier.

 

CHEMICAL ENGINEERING

Chemical engineering is one of the basic tenets of engineering, and contains many practical concepts that are utilized in countless real-world industrial applications. A discussion centered on the field of chemical engineering is therefore warranted before proceeding to some specific details regarding this discipline. A reasonable question to ask is: What is chemical engineering? An outdated, but once official definition provided by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is:

 

Chemical engineering is that branch of engineering concerned with the development and application of manufacturing processes in which chemical or certain physical changes are involved. These processes may usually be resolved into a coordinated series of unit physical “operations.” The work of the chemical engineer is primarily concerned with the design, construction, and operation of equipment and plants in which these unit operations and processes are applied. Chemistry, physics, and mathematics are the underlying sciences of chemical engineering, and economics is its guide in practice.

 

This definition was appropriate until a few decades ago when the profession branched out from the chemical industry. Today, that definition has changed. Although it is still based on chemical fundamentals and physical principles, these have been de-emphasized in order to allow for the expansion of the profession to other areas. These areas include environmental management, health and safety, computer applications, project management, probability and statistics, ethics, and economics and finance, plus several other “new” topics. This has led to many new definitions of chemical engineering, several of which are either too specific or too vague. A definition proposed by your author, is simply that “chemical engineers solve problems.” Today, this engineering discipline offers the student the largest number of professional options to pursue on graduation, including medicine, law, education, the environment, etc. This would be my first choice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in engineering.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING

Traditionally, the scope of environmental engineering (originally termed sanitary engineering) was confined primarily to water supply, sewerage, and general environmental sanitation. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, the profession has expanded – due in part to the author – to include increased responsibilities in municipal and industrial waste treatment, air pollution, solid waste management, radiological health, safety, etc. It was originally viewed as a branch of civil engineering, but because of its importance, especially in dense urban-population areas, it acquired the importance of a specialized field. As noted, it now primarily deals with problems involving water supply, treatment, and distribution; disposal of community wastes and reclamation of useful components of such wastes; control of pollution of surface waterways, groundwaters, and soils; air pollution; control of atmospheric pollution; meteorology; housing and institutional management; rural and recreational-site management; insect and vermin control; industrial hygiene, including control of light, noise, vibration, and toxic materials in work areas; and, other fields concerned with the control of environmental factors affecting health. The field of accident and emergency management/health and hazard risk assessment has as its object the prevention of accidents. In recent years, “safety” engineering has become a specialty adopted by individuals trained in other branches of engineering.

 

With the expanding effort to provide a healthier environment for the industrial worker, environmental engineering techniques are employed to rid the air of noxious dusts and gases in plants and other working areas. The problem of atmospheric pollution resulting from discharging waste into the atmosphere in large industrial settings became a major concern soon after 1970, a time when I entered the field.

 

 

MORE ON ENGINEERING

 

Other Engineering Disciplines

Civil Engineering is the oldest and broadest of all engineering branches. It is in turn subdivided to include specialization in such fields as structural, sanitary, public health, hydraulic, transportation and other established engineering disciplines. They design bridges and tunnels, construct roads, install water-supply and sewage-disposal systems, erect dams, lay out railroads and other transportation systems and plan buildings of all types and sizes for public, private, and industrial uses.

 

Electrical Engineering, another important branch of the profession, deals comprehensively with power generation and its transmission and distribution, electronics and its many applications, transportation, illumination, and all types of electrical machinery. The electrical engineer designs, directs and supervises the construction of electrical systems for the production and utilization of power for the multitudinous purposes of business, industry, and the community.

 

Mechanical Engineering is one of the largest branches in the engineering field. This branch of the engineering profession is subdivided into heat, power, and machine design options with electives in aeronautical, metallurgical and industrial engineering. Devices for heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, engines and other mechanisms for the propulsion of vehicles and missiles on, under, or over land, sea, and air. tools, motors, and machines for all types of industrial production or research are just a few examples of the mechanical engineer’s contributions to the world.

 

Salaries and Rewards

Beginning salaries for inexperienced engineering graduates vary according to the type of agency seeking their services, geographical area in which the individual is employed, level of responsibility and nature of duties for particular positions, and the competition for engineering positions at any given time. Due to the shortage of engineers in recent years, graduates with no experience have commanded salaries ranging from an average low of $70,000 to an average high of $100,000 per year. Possessors of the Master’s degree begin at higher levels; those with a Doctorate in Engineering receive considerably higher starting salaries.

 

Aside from financial rewards, the successful engineer enjoys unlimited opportunity for creative achievement, the satisfaction of contributing significantly to the improvement of standards of living, and a distinctive position of trust and respect in the community.

 

It should be noted that college engineering programs are very difficult. The student cannot expect to succeed without devoting himself entirely to his work in school and to related home assignments. Unless the student is willing to curtail or even forego a great many of the social activities generally associated with attendance at college or with young people of his age, academic problems will probably arise. Although the road to success in engineering is not an easy one, a career in the profession can be realized by a student willing to accept the obligations for required adequate preparation.

 

With Women

Finally, careers in engineering are projected to expand rapidly in the next decade. In this technologically advanced world, the discoveries and solutions being made affect the lives of everyone. Historically, women have been underrepresented in the industries that drive these advances in engineering technology. This mindset, however has been quickly changing. It is exciting to live at such a pivotal moment in history when women have such an incredible opportunity to change the face of industries, not only in engineering but across a variety of fields. Thankfully, our nation draws its intellectual power from 100% of the population, not 47.9%, as with many other nations.

 

When I retired some years ago, 50% of my students were women. And, more often than not, they outperformed the men. Maybe they felt they had something to prove.

 

 

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www.theodorenewsletter.com

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