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When I started my career as an engineer, there was one guy on my engineering team who had to crunch numbers and perform mathematical calculations. He was a specialist and this was his primary job. He knew all the unit conversions, critical formulas and most-used equations. He made important contributions to the team, and he was our go-to expert for this information. This wasn’t in the days of slide rules and drafting tables; this was in the early days of CAD/CAM.
We’ve not only modeled our manufacturing and business practices around the idea of specialization – we’ve also built our educational system around it: the word specialization connotes expertise gained by both education and experience.
Specialization is, in many ways, essential to your career. If you’re an engineer, you very quickly had to specialize when you chose your engineering degree program in college. But specialization continues to happen well into your career, through choices in projects, software, hardware, methodologies, etc. Engineers who, out in the field, honed their skills (or who showed interest) in a specific discipline, technology or process could quickly become known as a specialist or expert at that task.
The benefits of specialization are made clear to us in our idioms (“jack of all trades, master of none”) and our training, both in engineering and business (think back to your lectures on how Henry Ford transformed manufacturing through specialization of tasks). However, specialization is not inevitable. In fact, it may be on the decline.
While many other fields see a trend towards increased specialization, engineering may well be experiencing the exact opposite trend: the rise of the engineering generalist. It may be counter-intuitive, but even as applied research relies more and more on previous research and appears inextricably deep in its specialization, the engineering generalist is gaining momentum. When dealing with such a large field, crossover happens, and now engineers have to wear a lot more hats than they used to. Facing pressure caused by smaller teams and tighter deadlines, the engineering generalist uses tools (online and on the desktop) to supplement whatever shortcomings their early training and specialization may present as they try to tackle ever more complicated challenges.
The Downside of Specialization
Specialization brings important benefits to the organization as a whole, and can be extremely rewarding for the individual specialist, but it is also significantly risky for the individual since companies today expect more from workers and teams are lean. Though it’s said it takes 10,000 hours to truly master any field, that training can become quickly outdated as technology advances.
One small example of this risk: in 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the unemployment rate among recent IT graduates at the moment is actually twice that of theater majors,” according to a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. IT may be slightly more prone to the rise and fall of certain trends than other disciplines, but the risk is there, no matter what your major.
But specialization is still a necessity for most engineers. For most engineering disciplines, the only way to land that first job is the right degree with the right coursework. The advantages of specialization diminish rapidly once an engineer has secured that first job, however. Cross-disciplinary training in particular is important. In today’s engineering world, you may see a mechanical engineer who might also handle electrical controls, instead of handing that off to an electrical engineer.
Choose the Path With the Most Options
Paul Graham, a programmer, entrepreneur and author, wrote in 2005 that the best immediate choice is the one that offers the broadest number of subsequent options. In analyzing Graham’s idea, blogger Scott H. Young talks up the advantages engineers face who want to broaden their exposure, suggesting that “engineering majors can do an MBA, but business majors generally can’t do a masters of engineering. Engineering, in this case, has more downwind options than business.”
Research by the McKinsey Global Institute puts the worldwide shortage of highly skilled, college-educated workers as high as 40 million by 2020. Firms are responding with more strategic hires, but some companies are going so far as to rethink how they look at experts and specialists. According to Harvard Business Review, some companies are transferring expert tasks to lower-skill people inside or outside their organizations, and outsourcing work that requires scarce skills but is not strategically important. This makes understanding the big picture even more important to the aspiring senior engineer. Engineers recognize this need, leading, for example, to a trend of senior engineers transitioning into project management to oversee all aspects of a program.
To succeed, engineers must find the right balance between being a generalist and a specialist. That balance may increasingly favor the generalist, or at least lean much more toward generalization than before. If you are going to specialize, suggests Young, pick the specialization that offers the most downstream options.
Jack of All Trades, Master of Some
Vikram Mansharamani of Yale University gives three reasons that generalists may be better adapted than specialists in a 2012 article in Harvard Business Review. First is the increased risk of the “Butterfly Effect,” in which seemingly unrelated developments can affect on another. Second is the risk that specialists face of dogmatic and single-minded responses to situations which may not be as well-defined as we’d like them to be. And third is the suggestion that generalists are better at determining outcomes than specialists can be.
The new generalists not only work with interdisciplinary teams; they themselves are multidisciplinary. They benefit from the perspective that comes from not only knowing how to work with other specialists, but also how to apply a broader perspective to the various challenges they face in their day-to-day work life.
As management guru Peter Drucker put it, “the only meaningful definition of a ‘generalist’ is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge.” This approach will benefit the engineer perhaps more than many other professional disciplines in the near and distant future.
Rich Gavin has served as Training and Development Manager at Knovel (acquired by Elsevier in 2013) for the last five years. His mechanical engineering career began over 30 years ago in the material handling and plant design industry, when he started out as a design engineer focused mainly on the automotive industry. Interest in computer-aided design (CAD) quickly drove him to hold positions as a CAD system supervisor, applications engineer, territory sales representative and software product designer. In all those positions, customer training was a key component of his activities, paving the way for his current position at Knovel.