Engineering is not vocational, but is a vocation

This post is in recognition of the STAY WITH IT Day of Engineering – March 14, 2012.

Engineering is “specialized” or “technical” or “professional” – these are adjectives often used by some to contrast engineering with other choices of college major. Some would be more pejorative and use terms like “narrow-minded” or “geeky.” Some consider it a vocational discipline.

Those who believe any of these notions need to both dig deeper into the history of engineering and consider the wide range of career paths taken by those who pursue an engineering degree.

Engineering is not just a trade

Engineering is not vocational, at least when used in the same way that one says “vocational school.” There is a widespread and often repeated belief that engineering evolved out of the work of skilled trades, like mechanics and steam workers. Even engineers often repeat this story – my own alma mater and employer, Georgia Tech, was once known as the North Avenue Trade School.

Within the United States, engineering as a academic discipline was created to rise above and beyond empirical trade craft to a professional field of study based on scientific underpinnings. But it did not necessarily evolve from the trade practitioners. Rather,
” … neither apprenticeship systems nor the miscellany of technical instruction that had developed was satisfactory to provide the skilled manpower for the large-scale public works projects and the industrial development that was evolving. Craft traditions failed to encourage the intellectual flexibility upon which technical progress depended … engineering education did not evolve from apprenticeship training and only slowly replaced it …” 1 This growth was driven by an unmet demand for engineers to design public works projects (bridges, forts) in the United States in the wake the Revolutionary War, and led to the founding of some of the earliest engineering programs at schools such as West Point, Norwich University, and Rensselaer, among others.

My undergraduate alma mater and employer, Georgia Tech, was started about 50 years after these universities.  Take a look at the Georgia Tech entrance exam from the 1906 general catalog.2 The entrance requirements were not skilled trades, but rather a broad education grounded in both science as well as the arts.

Attributes of successful engineering graduates

Today’s successful engineering graduates are skills problem solvers, have experience working on groups and teams, communicate effectively with broad audiences, and are life-long learners who can handle complexity and change.  These attributes  are not too difference from the goals of a liberal education. (In another blog post I will eventually write about the mutual compatibility of the goals of engineering and liberal education. Liberal education is NOT the same as the liberal arts, but that is another topic for another day.) A now 20+ year-old study of engineering alumni found that the broad non-major courses (which make up well over half the coursework for engineering majors) were just as important to the careers of engineering graduates as their technical coursework.

But don’t take my word for it.

A 2008 profile of CEO career paths found that 22% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies had undergraduate degrees in engineering, significantly more than other broad disciplines including Business and Liberal Arts.  And creativity? In related studies that attribute, creativity, was the one most highly sought after and valued by CEOs. These are not just CEOs of techhnology firms. At Georgia Tech, we count among our engineering alumni CEOs of companies ranging from Coca-Cola (John Brock, Chemical Engineering) to GameStop (J. Paul Raines, Industrial Engineering).

Engineering fosters creativity

Creativity is alive and well at Georgia Tech and many other engineering schools nationwide.  Not just technical creativity. Check out the Inventure Prize, an annual innovation competition for undergraduate students, or the Georgia Tech Invention Studio, where undergraduate are empowered to take their creative urges in directions that they never thought possible. Or link engineering to other creative directions and take classes like the Theory and Design of Music Synthesizers, taught by my colleague Aaron Lanterman. Pursue a passion for writing, like my friend and Georgia Tech alumnus Paul Heney (Engineering Science and Mechanics) who works as Editorial Director for a family of publications.  Paul’s interest in writing started while he was an undergraduate, where he served as a Section Editor for the Technique, our student newspaper.

To summarize, engineering education today is developing many of the very skills that employers want in their graduates – creative problem solvers, team players, communicators of technical topics to diverse audiences, life-long learners. In this sense, engineering IS a vocation in the original sense of the word – not just an occupation or a set of skills, but a calling.  And this calling ultimately leads our graduates to a wide range of career paths.


1.  Historical info and quotation from The Making of an Engineer, by Lawrence Grayson , John Wiley and Sons, 1993.

2. Thanks to Dr. Ray Vito who dug up this exam when he discovered a 1906 Georgia Tech General Catalog!

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