Are engineers good at fixing things? Or, more specifically, do the skills acquired from en engineering degree / engineering job lend themselves to the basic household issues that always seem to pop up? The reason I pose the question is that I’m often asked, “Why don’t you know how to fix a leaky faucet, you’re an engineer?” Or, since many of my acquaintances know the discipline in which I received my degree (Electrical Engineering), the question might be, “Why don’t you know how to install a new overhead light?” My responses are always short and to the point: “I don’t know because I was never taught,” and the questioner always walks away decidedly unimpressed.
I draw two main conclusions from these mock conversations:
1) The majority of folks really don’t know what engineers learn.
I once told a mutual acquaintance that I am an electrical engineer. He asked what it was I worked on, and I told him I’m in semiconductors and I do physical silicon layout design. He asked if I went to a trade school for that. To him, the difference (and I am NOT judging here) between one with an electrician’s license and one who works on microchips was cloudy. It’s not that he thinks they’re the same, it’s not that he thinks they’re different. He simply had no idea how to differentiate the day-to-day tasks of an “electrician” and “electrical engineer”.
I’m certain mechanical engineers have run into similar conversations as well (please post them in the comments section, as I’d love to hear stories). It doesn’t stop there though. I’m betting chemists are confused with chemical engineers, architects with structural and civil engineers, computer repairmen confused with computer engineers, and so on and so on. The harm I see here is that the majority of folks in US don’t have the slightest clue how technology advances, and further, what kind of education it takes to train the people responsible for this advancement. And worse yet, I’m concerned they don’t care.
2) While there are no doubt millions of engineers who can re-wire a house or fix a leaky faucet, these skills were not acquired in college.
Again, I’ll use myself as an example. Ask my wife. I am terrible around the house. Our kitchen faucet was leaking for awhile before a contractor was in our house for an unrelated estimate. He noticed the faucet, asked for a wrench, and it was done in 20 seconds. I think we are forever destined to purchase new homes because I’m not going to be “fixing up” anything. Is every engineer incapable of basic household work? Of course not. I’m not even saying that engineers are less likely to be good at this than the average person. My only point is being an engineer, at least for me, has not increased my ability one bit to fix things around the house. I can lecture on how a device the size of a human hair is capable of conducting and pinching off current. (It’s based on quantum physical behavior of electrons in the semiconductor lattice.) But, I am unlikely to do much electrical work inside my house short of resetting the circuit breaker.
Does this make me pathetic/not smart? In some ways, definitely. I constantly think of this as a deficiency in my personal character. But, it doesn’t make me any worse at my job. The counter-argument would be that if I had more “common sense”, I’d be a better problem solver at work. The truth is, I am constantly coming up with creative ways to solve intricate, complicated issues. I can claim that I’m very good at “fixing things”. That’s what being an engineer is all about. I just happen to be really bad at fixing things in my house.