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Are Engineers Good at Fixing Things?

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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.

I’d love to hear all your thoughts on this in the comments section.  Has anyone noticed their engineering skill lead to greater skills around the house?

Category: Efficiency, Engineering & Design

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10 Responses

  1. I think the specific degree and the level of education within that specialty can greatly affect how useful your skills become around the house, but i also think that your inherent abilities or interests prior to getting your degree can affect your degree choice just as much.

    i’ve got my BSME and worked for 3 years as a design and manufacturing engineer. I focussed mainly on industrial automation, which I’ve found has been incredibly useful for my ‘around the house’ abilities. I could easily rewire the entire house and probably my car as well.

    I did, however, have many of these skills (at least at some level) prior to getting my ME degree. I built multiple additions with my father as a kid, helped with cars around the house, and did just about every handy man activity one could imagine. These activities no doubt led to me selecting mechanical engineering as a degree.

    If I had gotten a masters or phd, however, i doubt the niche topics that i chose to focus my education on would have been nearly as helpful to my skills around the house.

    The major corollary I have to your experience, is with automobiles. I get how cars work, and I can talk a big game, but I’m endlessly frustrated that I can’t tell you about all the parts under the hood. Someday I vow to restore a car just so I can get my hands on every part. That’s how I find ME’s learn the best.

  2. I really find your post very refreshing because I have often found it hard to “fit” into a job description of “do you like fixing things, do you like working with your hands? then engineering is suitable for you etc etc. I studied electrical engineering. I got into it because I was one of the top students in my home country in maths and science, and was encouraged through sponsorship to persue Electrical Engineering. This was through a scheme to promote women in engineering. I cannot say that I was always building and fixing things as a youngster, no, I was rather writing songs, going fishing, cooking, painting pictures, writing math and science quizes and olympiads for fun or doing sport. My father was not an engineer, neither was my grandfather, so I do not have generations of engineers in my blood, which I think contributes to the fact that I am still trying to figure out what engineering is all about. I am not very handy with tools, my friend, I will be calling the AA or RAC (not sure what it is in your country) before I attempt to change a flat tyre. So, in my training, I have taken apart motors, and put them together again, but that is not how I am really wired. I think! It is actually quite terrible, but I think a lot about how things are to be done, I write down my plan, then I do my work.

    I do have a question for you though. Did your job require a lot of investment in training and devlopment of your skils outside of university?How did you make sure you were always getting the right sort of work experience?

    • Ryan says:

      Emang, these are really good thoughts, thanks for the reply.

      I think it’s interesting that you were pushed into engineering based solely on your skills in math and science, and not by some natural desire to engineer and design. This is similar to the path I took, actually. My background is also EE, and while my job did require a lot training, development, classes, etc beyond what I learned in college, it was all built on that foundation. Almost everything I absorbed in school was necessary for my career.

  3. Leo says:

    Well, typically but not necessarily. What I have found that most of the people in engineering (and most of the really good ones) grew up curious and always tinkering with things and taking them apart and eventually putting them back together, sometimes even better than before.

    In interviews, I always ask about hobbies. Hobbies almost always involve some hardware. Then I ask if they fix/install/tune the hardware themselves. If they don’t, that (to me) is a very bad sign. Do they replace the wiper blades and air filter on their car (Very basic tasks). I don’t expect every engineer to have done an engine rebuild but if a blow fuse has them heading for the garage instead of the fuse panel then I will generally pass on that candidate.

    • Ryan says:

      Leo, agreed on a lot of this. I remember building little electronic devices growing up. (In particular, I thought I was very clever for building a personal alarm system for anyone that walked down the stairs and hit the trip wire I set up.) Perhaps this was the very start of my engineering career.

      In the semiconductor industry, I have not noticed the correlation between basic handyman work and engineering skill in the workplace. I’m wondering if the skills you mention help engineers across all disciplines, or perhaps more in the area in which you focus.

      In what industry do you work? Is it mechanical? Aero, perhaps?

    • Liz says:

      Building/fixing things is not an innate skill. You are not born knowing how to fix cars and and build electronic devices. You learned it from somewhere. Theoretically, any person who can finish the college curriculum for engineering should also be able to learn handyman skills.

  4. Stian says:

    As I see it, it really depends more on your 1. Work experience and 2. Problem solving affinity

    1. I am a chemisist, got a masters degree in chemistry. I could have (and is still probably going to) do research-type work, however I am currently working in operations. In operations you learn how to quickly assess a problem wether you need more resources (people, usually) or if the ones you have will do and to what extent you can fix it now – and get it corrected later. You develop a gut feeling for different kinds of problems. As I said I was a chemisist, but i have handled problems ranging from (process-)water leakages and mechanical / physical breakdowns of equipment – in addition to the more chemistry related problems. You start to trust your own ability to do a good assessment of the situation. And that is something that will make you do quite alot of repairjobs and fixes on your own.

    2. Some are thinkers, some are doers. some are in between – and a good mix is required to be a good stand-alone fixer. If the faucet is leaking you can’t lock yourself into your bedroom and ponder the problem away. And you can’t really (without the necessary skills) just jump into it.

    • Ryan says:

      This is an excellent post, and I think it really touched on an important point: thinking vs. doing. By nature, I think many engineers are the ultimate “thinkers”. Assessing a problem from every angle possible, taking every measurement imaginable, gathering data points, analysis of the data, researching the topic at hand, etc. are all “tools” that an engineer (or scientist) uses to solve problems.

      I think it’d be interesting to ask the initial question of this blog within the context of the level of abstraction that an engineer works. Is it with his hands on tangible objects? Is it in a laboratory with chemicals? Is it operations/efficiency type work in a factory? Or is it with software with microscopic scale devices? I bet we get different responses from each.

  5. Dave Slopsema says:

    I am a Mechanical Engineer working in the Auto industry. I and most other mechanical engineers I know are also good at fixing things. I always thought that the same inclinations that drive me to take things apart and put them back together also helped drive me to become a mechanical engineer. My education did not teach me how to fix most of these things, but it does help me understand why things break and why things are designed the way they are.

    • Ryan says:

      I think you’ll find most mechanical engineers have a similar passion and affinity for fixing things. The very nature and skill of your profession normally lends itself to practical, tangible tasks around the house and car. Whether it’s how much stress and I-beam can handle, to the purchase required to lift a car to fix a flat, the ME principles learned in school (and outside of it) can be applied. Thanks for the reply!

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