Two incidents drove me to write this article. In the first incident, a woman wished that her son became a “Mechatronics Engineer” (Mechatronics deals with the mechanical and electronics principles applied together). She explained that “Robotics” is the future of the world (guess Steven Spielberg has had some influence over her) and “Mechatronics Engineers” would be in great demand in future. She thought her son could build a robot on graduating.
In the second incident, a student from my school got into an IIT recently. One of my schoolteachers mentioned this and added: “He is a brilliant student who is well-planned. He has started preparations to sit for GMAT after his engineering.” GMAT is an examination to get into management schools (primarily in the U.S. and several other English-speaking nations). My teacher believes that engineering, followed by a management course, is a good option.
In this article, I try to make clear some facts about ‘engineering’ — facts which will prove the above (and some other) expectations and beliefs to be far from reality.
ENGINEERS ARE SUPER-HUMANS
People do not understand the reality of ‘engineering.’ For them, engineers are “super-humans” who build rockets, robots, electric vehicles and the like. The reason is that when a person says he works on a satellite project, people jump to the conclusion that he knows every detail of building a satellite. In reality, no engineer can know the entire details of projects. For example, it requires people from various disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, chemical and materials engineering to design an electric car.
Since the common man has the “super-human” view in mind, he generally does not accept or appreciate many of the “real” engineering works. For example, a home inverter might not bring about any awe to the common man as does an electric vehicle (though both might be equally challenging to build), because he often finds a technician setting right the problems in a home inverter. The technician just knows by experience what to do, whereas an engineer knows why it has to be done.
ENGINEERING IS MORE VALUABLE THAN SCIENCE
First, I will clarify the difference between ‘science’ and ‘engineering’ through a simple example. The study of optics of materials will fall under science. Scientists (physicists, in this case) will try to explain the optical properties which different materials possess. If someone tries to use the optical properties to make a microscope or a camera, he will be an engineer. Scientists establish facts which engineers exploit to make things useful to society. History would tell you that scientists did a lot of engineering work in the earlier days (between 1700 and 1900 when a lot of development really happened in science and engineering).
Today, with the vastness of the different fields, science and engineering have separated . Now, scientists rarely take up engineering work. Nevertheless, I would say scientists play a greater role as they have to establish the basic facts for engineers to build upon.
Unfortunately, since the result of engineering is the one that fetches money, people have a craze for engineering. It is disheartening to see a Ph.D. student in science getting a lesser stipend than a Ph.D. student in engineering. It should have been the other way round. Any nation that ignores the role of science cannot survive in the long run.
MANAGEMENT STUDIES GOES WITH ENGINEERING
A degree in engineering followed by a degree in Management is the much sought-after combination. Again, a ‘myth’ that engineering and management are related is at work. Engineering (with science as the basis) has nothing to do with management (which does not involve science). A lucrative salary is what attracts people to management studies.
Furthermore, most institutes do not introduce engineering in a proper way, leaving students without confidence to pursue higher education.
WE NEED MORE IITS
There are many IITs coming up, ostensibly to help the nation meet the requirement of engineers. Truly speaking, we have enough of engineers. Design, the work of engineers, requires just a few people.
The dearth is not in the number but in the quality of engineers we produce. It is enough if we are able to improve and maintain the quality of our institutes and retain the people graduating from them by creating ample opportunities for them to work in India with a good salary. It is better to improve and maintain the standards of the NITs, the IITs and other government institutes than creating newer ones and diluting the existing standards.
FOREIGN MNCS DO BEST R&D ENGINEERING
Foreign multinationals that claim to have research and development centres in India do not do real engineering work in the country, as it is natural for any company to have real product development on home soil.
Here again, the salary is what attracts people (thanks to the dollar-rupee conversion). This is a case of brain drain, in which the brains are hired not to work. Though many might not accept, the basic aim of the foreign MNCs is to utilise the cheap labour in the developing countries to run their manufacturing units; product development is not their primary goal.
People generally end up doing tasks that are not as challenging as is the work in smaller Indian industries trying to develop products of their own.
A B.E/B.TECH GRADUATE IS AN “ENGINEER”
With the vastness of technology, in the present day one cannot call oneself an engineer just on graduating. A B.E./B.Tech. graduate knows just the basics. I would say that post-graduation is a must. Or at least, one needs to work for a few years to understand and build engineering products. A lot of people believe that a B.E. graduate in aerospace would be able to build rockets on graduating. If it were so, there would be rockets flying everywhere!
I would advise people without an engineering background to talk to people who do real engineering work to take decisions before choosing the field for their children. The aim of education is not merely to land a high-paying job. It should empower you to find a suitable work for yourself.