Technologists gaining stature in society

Aug. 10, 2009
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, says that better times are on tap for technologists.

Moan all you want about the condition of the economy, the state of your 401(k) and the combination of questionable regulations, ethics and actions that brought us here — if you love technology, you have cause to celebrate.

Engineers (even those of us masquerading as journalists) have taken a real beating during the past two decades; marketing, finance and Wall Street decided we’re irrelevant, while Jimmy Carter, Scott Adams and Hollywood made us into laughingstocks. Of course, we did our part…but I digress.

Now, financier has joined used car salesman (and journalist) as one of the world’s least respected professions, and there’s some evidence that engineer and technician are gaining stature. According to a July report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE., among college graduates with bachelors degrees, engineers are pulling down the highest starting salaries. Of the top 15 degrees, 12 are engineering, ranging from petroleum (a standout at $83,000) and chemical (number 2 at $65,000) to biomedical ($53,000).


Actuarial scientists ($56,000) and others who pay attention to these statistics over time might be quick to point out that this isn’t news — engineers have led the pack for many years. I say to them, this isn’t a news column, it’s an exultation.

Heightened interest in technology, especially in manufacturing-related technology such as mining ($64,000), electrical ($60,000) and industrial ($58,000), is a good thing. This issue’s cover story (“Emerge on Top,” describes ways to cope with the long-term skilled labor shortage brought on by changing demographics and the short-term crunch attributable to recession-related personnel and budget cuts. Filling the demographic trough with new, young talent is essential, and these days, a promise of a high-paying job is a strong incentive.

But as the article describes, using technology to leverage existing expertise is at least as important. Doing more with less is the critical competitive edge in manufacturing, and for that, we need the best and brightest.

So it’s heartening to hear that troubles on Wall Street might be inspiring our graduating classes’ greatest minds to reconsider finance as a career. “I don’t mean to minimize the pain caused by the near-collapse of the financial sector. But there’s a silver lining,” says Eric Effron in The Week. “With high finance suddenly in low regard, more of our brightest young people could soon be devoting their brainpower not to moving around paper for financial firms, but to such daunting problems as global warming, energy depletion and our crumbling infrastructure.”

While visiting colleges a few years ago with his sons, Effron learned that at many engineering programs, most of the recent grads had gone into finance, “lured by six-figure starting salaries and the prestige of a Wall Street sinecure,” he says. “A dean at one Ivy League school explained that Wall Street loved engineering students because of their analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, they ended up working on credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and the other dizzying financial products that got us into this mess.”

While the promise of a six-figure paycheck on Wall Street once “proved irresistible to many of America’s brightest young people,” says Steve Lohr, New York Times, “today’s go-getters are setting their sights on jobs in public service, science, health and technology.”