In the early days (mid 1960’s), I was working as an assistant engineer for natural gas production and delivery in a domestic power company. In those days, engineers did not have to have degrees and I certainly did not have one then. Most of the work was common sense. But you had to have the ability to handle technical issues and the ability to perform technical analysis. As a young engineer, the work was heady and the pay was several times what my father made. It was a hierarchical company but a lot of respect was given to the engineers who could solve problems and keep the gas flowing as needed.
Then I got drafted into the Army and found that their concept of engineering was vastly different and what you could or could not do was largely based on your rank. As a PFC, I was basically told when, where and how to pull or push levers and not much else. But I did get recognition and got selected to go to West Point where I got an extraordinary engineering education.
When I graduated as an engineering 2LT, I got far more responsibility put on me than I ever did in my previous positions. I got to build major buildings that would serve not only the Army but also the Air Force, the Navy and the Coast Guard. At one point I had three projects going some 250 miles apart which included designing and operating a rock quarry, paving an airfield and providing security structures to a nuclear missile site. Then I was put to work as the project engineer for providing emergency construction to restore water and sewage to a city in Alaska after their power plant burned down. That was followed by building a composite facility at a radar site and rebuilding an airfield. Then I was the Development Program Manager for a major weapons system as a MAJ. If you could not handle the tasks given you, you did not last long as we engineers tend to eat our young. I was fortunate and survived.
I got my Ph.D. in engineering, and have since both worked with industry and taught engineering at all levels.
First, engineering is not the same as it was when I started. Back then, you expected to work for the same company your whole life. It was family and your managers seem both more accessible and more supportive of what you did. Now, as alluded to before, engineers will move between companies several times. There is more emphasis on knowing the correct “buzz words” that make up the current “Franca lingua” within a company. You either learn quick or expire. It has become more cut throat with the regards going to that person who can put on a better show and promise to get there quicker. But there are also exceptions: the culture in some of companies most desirable to work for are supportive.
Second, the emphasis on knowledge of theory is far more important now. In general projects are more complicated and generally can not be executed by one engineer or one type of engineer alone. If you noticed, I did not yet use a field of engineering. I have worked as a Geophysical Engineer, as a Computer Engineer, as a Software Engineer, as an Electrical Engineer, as a Mining Engineer, as both a Horizontal and Vertical Construction Engineer, as a Civil Engineer, as an Industrial Engineer and as a Mechanical Engineer in the various projects that I have completed over my 50 years. Basic engineering in all of these disciplines is the same but they speak different languages. If you speak hydraulics in Mechanical Engineering you mean pumps, hoses, pistons and motors. Hydraulics in Civil Engineering means ditches, weirs, surface flows and dams. What has happened to engineering in my humble opinion is that it has gotten far more specialized with each engineering field developing deeper and more difficult to translate into other disciplines.
Third, corporate cultures have changed drastically. I remember that one of my first jobs as an engineer was to install an IBM 1620 computer which later got upgraded to an IBM 1130. During this time, I worked with IBM’s field engineers. They would answer and provide documentation for any thing you would ask about their computer, their software or the usage of same. In the mid 1980’s I had a project to hook up a Benson Electrostatic Plotter to an IBM 4340. This was after famous anti-trust case. I could get no where in getting the information that I needed from IBM. It was a different company and very closed lipped about their products. I finally measured the signals and created the conversions necessary. There is far more emphasis today on protecting “Intellectual Property” (which in many cases every good engineer already knows) than ever before. There is less of a willingness to share this with external entities.
Fourthly, companies today do not regard their employees as long term assets and so don’t act to improve their knowledge, generally. I believe, that if I had not gotten drafted, that my original company would have sent me to college, with the caveat that I return to work for them. I do not know of that happening today. Companies are in far greater fear of losing their engineers to other competitors and therefore are very frugal in upgrading their engineer’s knowledge. Again, exceptions exist. The other side of this coin is that engineers today do not feel a particular need to “ride for the brand.” Realizing that they will be moving on, they put in far more time dressing their resume and keeping it circulating than I have ever seen.
Fifthly, I believe engineering is still a life rewarding activity despite all of the changes. But engineers today must always update their education to stay current to today’s needs. This was not needed forty years ago. It is a new demand and it requires both diligence and setting aside resources for it. There is still the thrill of completing a difficult project successfully and seeing it in use. You just do not get this rush from any other occupation. That has not changed over my 50 years of experience. When I see the the projects that I designed, built and turned over to users, still in use, I have a lot of pride. This just does not get old. All of the frustrations were worth it.
So to conclude, what does it feel like to be a Mechanical Engineer? It is a thrill, a feeling of pride and a sense of well being.
This article was written by Walter Olson, an engineer, soldier and professor. It was first drafted as an answer to a question on Quora, “What is it like to be a mechanical engineer”. It has been republished here with permission. You can follow Walter on Quora.