With a dizzying array of nontechnical fields hotly pursuing applicants with technical skills and experience, an engineering education is fast becoming "the new liberal arts degree." A 1995 NSF survey found that only 38 percent of those in the U.S. workforce with a B.S. in engineering actually work as engineers. Another 4 percent say they work in a related science field and an additional 48 percent aren't considered engineers or scientists, but say their work is related to engineering. Many of these 48 percent are managers who started in technical positions and now oversee other engineers. Others of them have gone on to work as entrepreneurs, patent attorneys or patent examiners, technical writers, CEOs, financial analysts, salespeople, and teachers.
NSF's 1995 report Restructuring Engineering Education notes this trend and recommends that undergraduate engineering education support two classes of career aspirations:
On the following pages we profile four engineers who have put their analytical problem-solving skills and technical know-how to use in fields not traditionally associated with engineering. These engineers attribute their career moves to the high demand for technical skills, defense industry cutbacks, and, to some degree, serendipity. From the courtroom to the boardroom, from Wall Street to Disney's Main Street, engineers are receiving a warm welcome in places that may surprise you.
Current title: Associate in the Intellectual Property Group of Howrey & Simon law firm
Career highlights: Worked as an electrical engineer for Motorola for six years, designing components for satellite communication systems. Has worked in both the International Trade Group and the Intellectual Property Group of Howrey & Simon law firm.
Most important lesson learned as an engineering student: "Everything"—a broad exposure to engineering concepts has prepared her to learn about an array of high-tech inventions.
A Patiently Perfect Profession
Still, another option intrigued her—a law career. "I decided I wanted an entire change," says Feeman, now a patent lawyer for the Silicon Valley law firm Howrey & Simon. At the time Feeman looked at the move not as the next step in her engineering career but as a clean break, she says. In fact, she hadn't even planned on specializing in patent law, a route commonly taken by engineers because it allows them to apply their technical skills to the law.
Feeman initially preferred more "touchy-feely" law and viewed patent law as merely a fall-back option. As a student at Boston College Law School, she developed a passion for civil rights and public interest work, and outside the classroom became involved in the petition process to get clemency for some battered women who had murdered their husbands.
In the classroom, Feeman excelled and graduated summa cum laude. "Engineering school is great preparation for law school," she says. "For one thing, engineering is so rigorous." In addition, she says, the analytical problem-solving skills she honed in engineering school prepared her to tackle complex legal problems.
After graduation in 1994, Feeman completed two one-year court clerkship positions–one in a U.S. district court and another in a U.S. circuit court of appeals. When the second clerkship ended and Feeman began job searching, reality set in. Criminal prosecution work was not an option for a new lawyer, and public interest work wouldn't pay off her hefty law school loan. It was time to play her trump card.
The Engineer's Advantage
Howrey & Simon quickly came to depend on Feeman's technical knowledge. "I kept saying, 'I'm not a patent lawyer,' and they kept saying, 'But you can understand the technology, and nobody else can,' " she recounts. Meanwhile, Feeman grew to like the work, which she found much more interesting than the routine entry-level work performed by the firm's other novice lawyers. She often met with inventors and technical experts to learn about the technical intricacies of products, such as CD-ROMs and semiconductors, that were the subject of patent infringement cases. "A lot of times we'll get the parts from people, and we'll start tearing them apart, looking at the components inside, and figuring out how they work," Feeman says.
Earlier this year, Feeman left her firm's International Trade Group for its Intellectual Property Group in Menlo Park, California, where she handles patent and copyright issues full time. Her engineering degree and work experience come into play constantly, she says. Although some patent lawyers go straight from engineering school to law school, Feeman found working in industry useful because it helped her develop her engineering knowledge and skills. Being a mature, battle-tested engineer also helps a new patent lawyer earn respect from inventors and technical experts, she says.
The Right Combination
And, while Feeman initially resisted specializing in patent law, she now describes it as the "perfect combination" of her engineering and law skills, and plans to eventually take the patent bar to become certified to write patents.
R. Thomas Weimer
Current title: Director of the National Academy of Engineering's Program Office
Career highlights: Staff Director of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Basic Research; Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of the Interior; Minority Staff Director of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Most important lesson learned as an engineering student: Systems approach to problem solving
Mr. Weimer Goes to Washington
As a high school student, Weimer naturally gravitated to technical studies; after all, his father was a professor of geological engineering at Colorado School of Mines. After graduation, Weimer enrolled at Harvey Mudd College, a small, technical college in Claremont, California, where he opted for a five-year program leading to both a bachelor's and master's in general engineering.
Fresh out of college, Weimer worked a year for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, and then headed to graduate school at the University of Washington. After earning a master's in electrical engineering in 1976, he landed a job at Sandia National Laboratories. There he helped develop systems for transporting nuclear materials and for protecting Energy and State Department facilities. Though very technical, Weimer's work at Sandia related closely to policy issues, and his understanding and interest in this area began to bud.
Life on the Hill
"It was quite a switch" from technical work, Weimer says. "I was expected to come up to speed as quickly as possible and was on a very steep learning curve to figure out how legislation works," he recalls. It was a trial by fire, as Weimer quickly assumed responsibility for helping craft the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. He also helped conduct congressional oversight of the commercial nuclear power industry—an important issue in the years immediately following the Three Mile Island incident.
The work meant long hours, and was often unpredictable and frustrating, but Weimer enjoyed it. So when his two-year assignment drew to a close and Lujan asked him to stay another year until the congressional session ended, he agreed. At the session's conclusion, Lujan once again invited Weimer to stay on—this time as an advisor to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Again, Weimer agreed. For a year and a half, he worked on Department of Energy issues before advancing to the position of committee minority staff director in 1986. At the time, the committee was investigating the Challenger accident, and Weimer put his technical background to use learning about NASA and space shuttle technology.
He often found himself translating complex NASA information for Congressional representatives to whom the technical presentations and view graphs seemed like a foreign language.
In 1989, Lujan became Secretary of the Interior and once again turned to Weimer for technical assistance, appointing him chief of staff. The job afforded him the opportunity to interact with President Bush's senior advisors and other presidential cabinet members. "I enjoyed seeing the inner workings of government." Weimer says.
After leaving Washington in 1993 to work as a management consultant in Colorado, Weimer returned in 1995 as director of the House Subcommittee on Basic Research. This January he brought his public policy and technical know-how to the National Academy of Engineering, where he leads the program office, which explores issues such as industrial ecology, technological literacy, and the impact of academic research on industry.
Taking a Systems Approach
Such open-mindedness is particularly important in public policy work, he adds, because the optimal technical solution might not win political favor. Engineers entering the public policy field may find this frustrating, he says, "but that's the reality of the situation."
Current title: Director of Equity Indexes for Salomon Smith Barney
Career highlights: Helping create the Dow Jones Industry Group Indexes; building up Salomon Smith Barney's equity index business.
Most important lesson learned as an engineering student: "How to mentally work hard."
An Engineer on Wall Street
At Princeton, Nadbielny enrolled in the school's Basic Engineering program, a precursor to the current Engineering and Management Systems Program that provides an engineering background for those interested in careers in business, management, and statistics and operations research. The program was ideal for Nadbielny, who wanted to specialize in modeling complex systems to forecast events. In the 1970s, computer advances had revolutionized modeling work, making it a hot job market.
Nadbielny decided to apply his modeling expertise to the financial industry, and after graduation headed off to pursue an M.B.A. in finance at the University of Chicago. He later landed a job as a financial analyst at the Travelers Investment Management Group. "About that time there was an explosion in the use of quantitative methods in portfolio management," he recalls. By carefully tracking stocks, applying mathematical models, and considering risk levels, an analyst can help clients make financial decisions, he explains. After a couple of years with Travelers, Nadbielny moved to a similar position at Shearson Lehman Hutton, where he helped develop the Dow Jones Industry Group Indexes.
Moving Up to Management
Nadbielny spends much of his time attracting new clients and meeting with current ones—primarily large institutional investors and pension fund companies, rather than individual investors. By tapping Salomon Smith Barney's huge databases of stock information and using their quantitative analysis skills, his team members provide clients with useful financial information. "We spend an awful lot of money tracking information and building databases. It doesn't make a lot of sense for our clients to have to replicate our efforts when they can just tap into us," he says. Clients pose questions such as: Can I mirror the results of a 3,000-stock index by purchasing only 300 of the stocks, and if so which ones? Are small-cap or large-cap stocks better investments? Should I invest in foreign stocks directly, with equity index swaps, or in American Depository Receipts?
The Ups and Downs of the Business
And such skills are becoming even more valuable. "Finance is a quantitative field, growing even more quantitative," he says. "Today more and more information is available faster and faster. We need ways of organizing, structuring, and deriving value from the information."
Perhaps the one major piece missing from Nadbielny's education was a focus on communication and language skills. "I didn't realize how much writing I'd be doing now and how much I'd be dealing with people from other countries. I think if I had it to do over again I would have paid more attention to those aspects as well," he says. "You can have the best models in the world but if you can't explain them and write a report on them that other people can understand and use, then it's really only useful to you."
Current title: Senior Project Engineer, Walt Disney World (WDW)
Career highlights: Ridesystem chief project engineer on WDW's Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, scheduled to open this month. Assisted on the design or redesign of Tower of Terror, Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain. Spent 16 years working in the defense industry.
Most important lesson learned as an engineering student: "You have to take responsibility for whatever you do."
Next Stop, Tomorrowland
Scantling entered the world of theme park ride and show engineering in 1993 after 16 years in a more typical engineering arena—the defense industry. A 1977 North Carolina A&T State University graduate, Scantling joined defense contractor Raytheon in Massachusetts soon after graduation. "At the time, the Cold War was at a peak, and the government was spending money madly on defense programs," he recalls. Engineering skills were in high demand, forcing companies to actively recruit new employees. So it came as no big surprise when a headhunter sought out Scantling a few years later to interview with defense contractor Martin Marietta in Orlando.
Having never been to Disney World, Scantling considered the Orlando trip a convenient opportunity to visit the theme park "on Martin Marietta's dime," while researching a promising career opportunity. Little did he know that his side trip destination would be his next career stop after a 13-year career with Martin Marietta.
From Defense to Disney
By the early 1990s, though, world politics had changed and so had the defense industry. "The Cold War had been de-escalated. The Berlin Wall came down, and the threat of communism was reduced," Scantling says. The effects rippled throughout the workplace, causing massive layoffs at defense contractors across the country. Though his boss assured him that he was "a keeper," Scantling began job searching anyway. A tip from the minority program director at the University of Central Florida, where Scantling was taking graduate courses, led him to Disney World.
As a Disney World engineer, Scantling has worked on a wide range of projects, something he says the specialized world of defense work doesn't allow for. "At Disney, one design project might involve automobiles, like the GM Test Track we're building at EPCOT. Another might involve elevator technology, such as Tower of Terror over at MGM Studios" in which a freight elevator plummets 13 stories, he says. "Others might involve roller coaster technology, for instance Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. . . . You've always got not only new problems but new types of problems that need to be solved."
To Infinity and Beyond!
As the project's technical leader, Scantling oversees the team of engineers, designers, drafters, and technicians that has transformed the ride's concept into reality. "The work is very hands-on," he emphasizes. "You start a project at the beginning, and follow it all the way through" from design to production to installation. "And when it's done and there is a problem, the phone call [from the maintenance department] goes to you."
It's work that fits well with Scantling's lifelong passion for hands-on, mechanical work. "I have always had a desire to see how things work," he says. "I'd always grab stuff, take it apart, fool around with it, break it sometimes, and sometimes get it back together," he laughs.
Scantling says he also enjoys the freedom Disney World provides him to do his job the way he sees fit. "If I wanted to change a screw [at Martin Marietta], it took three levels of revision review and signatures on about nine or 10 documents. Here if I want to change a screw, I go down to the shop, I mark the print to change the screw, and it's done."
Of course, along with autonomy comes accountability. That's a crucial lesson Scantling says he learned back in undergraduate engineering school. In college "you're on your own and you're responsible for whatever happens to you. Nobody's going to hand you anything or coddle you. . . . That's pretty much the way it is here also."
Beth Panitz is a freelance writer who lives in Rockville, Maryland.