Posted by: Rob | July 19, 2009

Ask the Blogger – Answers – The Engineer Question

Today is the next to final instalment of my answers in response to “Ask the Blogger”.

Today’s question was asked by TigereyeSal and she wanted to know: why engineering? and if not engineering, then what?

In retrospect, the sequence of events that culminated in my earning a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering may be somewhat unique.

The beginning was a long time ago. When Canada’s HRDC was known more commonly, and officially, as Canada Manpower. It was the early ‘80’s. I had graduated from high school in 1979 and I continued on working in a job I had been doing part time on and off for a couple of years already. In construction, working for my dad.

That whole arrangement fell apart when the Alberta boom went bust. As an aside, Albertans today still blame that bust on a federal Liberal government program called NEP (National Energy Program), but the fact is it was the North Sea oil field coming in and coming on line that caused the price of crude oil to collapse in the early ‘80’s.

I spent part of a winter working a logging job in the bush. That was the winter that John Lennon was murdered.

Early in ’81 I landed a lucrative (not) position as an order desk person at Ackland’s. To say that job sucked is an understatement. After only a few months, I quit there and tried my hand at a job at a relatively unknown finance company that specialized in financing heavy construction equipment.

The entry level job was, of course, in collections. Um, yeah, not exactly suited to my personality. I managed to beg my job back at Ackland’s after only a few months at the collections gig. Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.

By mid-’83 I was enticed back into a venture that my dad had going in renovations. This required us to move from Alberta east to Saskatchewan. That venture ran off the rails by the end of the year and we packed up and moved back to Alberta.

For the only time in my life, I was on UI, supplementing a bit with odd jobs here and there.

It must have been around that time that I heard the radio ads put on by Canada Manpower promoting their new “Choices” program. I found some time and went in to the center in Grande Prairie to check it out.

“Choices” was a computer program. You answered a series of questions meant to assess your personality type and, in combination with your skills, knowledge, aptitudes and education level, provided you with a list of careers that best fit your profile. This was in the time before CRT displays and I remember using a paper printing terminal which, by the way, was how I got a hardcopy print out record of my session.

I no longer remember the list of careers or jobs offered based upon my then “no degree” status. I think a lot of them were military in nature, actually. Not really what I was interested in. So, changing my inputs to include a 4 year degree, the program spit out a list of about 20 careers, most of them engineers of one sort or another. Of particular interest were the salary figures accompanying the job titles.

Being in Alberta, and already being aware of the burgeoning oil and gas industry here, I “deduced” that chemical engineering was the way to go, being (at the time) unaware of programs in production or petroleum engineering. Besides, neither production nor petroleum engineer was on the list provided by “Choices”, as I recall.

Another questionable conclusion I drew was that the bulk of the oil and gas companies were headquartered in Calgary and so I decided that I would attend the University of Calgary over the University of Alberta in Edmonton. That decision was also supported the fact that we didn’t like the city of Edmonton; Calgary was much nicer, and also that my wife had family in Calgary. (Support is good.)

I applied to the U of C for the fall session of 1984. I was not accepted to the faculty of Engineering, although they did grant me admittance to General Studies. Being a family man with two small children, time was critical and I did not feature taking a risk on doing a year of General Studies and then transferring to Engineering for another four years. So, I elected to wait, re-applied to Engineering for the fall session of 1985 and was accepted. Six years after graduating from high school, and despite a vow that I was finished with formal education, I entered university.

Those, plain and simple, are the reasons I chose engineering: i) it suited my personality, and ii) it pays pretty well.

As a footnote: The flaws in the above logic:

  1. Over time, people can change. And, although I did thoroughly enjoy what I did as an engineer, I have evolved. This evolution has affected many facets of me and now I find that I don’t really enjoy what I do. That could be partly due to the concurrent evolution that has occurred in my workplace over the years. In addition to not enjoying the work so much, I find a larger issue to be that I don’t really believe in what I am doing any longer. You can put up with quite a bit when you have faith that what you are doing is making a difference. When that faith is lost, well…
  2. Jobs that pay well can make a significant difference in your life style and your standard of living. But, you do become addicted to it. And, once addicted, it becomes very difficult to make a change that might jeopardize that kind of income. It makes you rationalize. It makes you hang out longer than you otherwise might. It makes you try to plan a seamless transfer from doing something you don’t really enjoy to something that you love. That planning process is probably somewhat protracted as a result.

I was, it seemed, an anomaly at the engineering faculty.  I was asked the question, more than once, about who else in my family was an engineer.  Most of the students seem to be children of engineers, so I guess it’s kind of a legacy thing.  If I followed that “rule”, then I should have been some kind of civil servant (like a police officer, conservation officer or the like).  The questioners were always surprised when I answered that I had no fellow engineers in my family (although, as it turns out I have a couple of cousins who display similar aptitudes: one is also a chemical engineer and the other has been a principal in a software company).  I always shrugged those questions off.

But, if not engineering, then what?  Actually, I struggle with that question today.  I don’t really like what I do now.  It’s a combination of burn out, lack of a real challenge and the bureaucracy of working for a very large corporation.  But, I have to say, my current employer has been very good to me.  It has afforded me many opportunities to travel and work in other places (international) and it has always respected my personal needs, especially when my late wife was battling melanoma.  Of course, that’s a function of the person you work for and how they manage within the constructs of corporate policy, but still.

I think I may have mentioned on this blog before, but when asked what my perfect job would be, I have always responded, and quickly, that I would like to work in space.  Writing this, it occurs to me that the reasons for that would be a combination of the challenges of the work (new, unproven, unmet) and the physical challenge of what is, essentially, a life and death environment.  To meet the physical challenges and live is, I think, one of the highest highs any human strive for and achieve.  (Hmm, that makes me sound like a danger junkie, doesn’t it?  I’ve probably not stated it as clearly as I’m thinking it, but it’s the best I can do for now.)

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Responses

  1. I graduated ten years before you. In those days girls could only be teachers, secretaries or nurses. I think I chose nursing because I had a sciency bent. Twenty or thirty years later, I would have probably been in some computer science or other geeky program. Although my sister, three years younger, has a degree in Electrical Engineering, and spent most of her working life writing software. And saving money so she could retire at 40, and raise a family.

  2. as i transitioned from one job to another (same big organization) last month, management at the old shop wanted to know “what are you looking for?”. pretty simple…

    to be a contributing member of a high performance team doing something that matters.

    i want to be useful. be surrounded by good people. doing something i can believe in… somehow.

    you’d think that would be easy with training in engineering, but it seems you’re in the same place i am… you definitely took an unusual path, but made it. not trivial…

  3. Interesting. I, too, have one of those career profiles somewhere. I recall that college professor was a fit, and interior designer was not. I wonder where my current job (and apparent career path) would land. I don’t even know how to categorize what I do.

    I wonder whether you could find an alternative to space work that would meet your profile- ambulance, perhaps? I think you’d need something less people-oriented. Maybe test pilot?

    I hope your protracted transition does eventually pan out.

  4. Footnote #2 should be taught in all the Universities.


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