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What do engineers do and what is their contribution to society

Updated on April 3, 2016

What is an engineer?

An engineer is a professional trained to create - through planning, design and operations - products and processes for betterment of society. Engineers use proven scientific and commercial processes.

This is definition leaves a lot that most people would want to describe an engineer is. People have an image of a typical engineer which is often not correct. But it's not their fault.

Because engineers work in a variety of industries, markets, sectors and regions it may be difficult to describe a generic role that fits all engineers. A engineer may well be properly placed working as a salesperson or as a technical writer or even a journalist as much as one working in a aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility.

In one picture you see an engineer in business suit and in another you her wearing safety goggles and overalls.

I one case an engineer is giving a presentation and in another she is repairing engines.

It's not the appearance that makes one an engineer.

So what is an engineer then?

An engineer is trained to use scientific principles to create...

Engineers are scientists in the sense that they must adhere to scientific processes. I will not dwell on what a scientific process is, that requires its own coverage. What this means in short is that engineers do not use conjecture in their work.

Traditionally one must have pre-university physics, chemistry and mathematics to enroll into an engineering degree. Today computer science, biology and even psychology are becoming increasingly crucial as well.

Design of structures such as bridges, tall buildings or aircraft fuselage require understanding of the underlying scientific principles.

What do engineers do in society, and who do they work for?

Engineers create. They create variety of products and processes using scientific principles to satisfy commercial and economic needs of society.

The engineering field has become one of the most exciting in the modern era and it is likely that you can find an engineer in most walks of life.

Here is a list of places where you can work as an engineer,

  • Engineering consultancy
  • Aircraft manufacturing, Boeing, Airbus,
  • Telecommunication service providers
  • Government
  • Banks
  • Airlines
  • Healthcare
  • Construction
  • Humanitarian organizations
  • Research institutes


Is this an engineer

This man may or may not be an engineer
This man may or may not be an engineer

What engineers are not

  • Engineers are not distinguished by exertion of effort.
  • Engineers are not identified by their attire.
  • Engineers are not necessarily identified by mental exertion either!
  • Have greasy hands does not make one an engineer.
  • Repairing engines is not where the word engineers came from.
  • Studying engineering and obtaining a degree does not necessarily make one an engineer.
  • Tinkering, on its own, does not necessarily make one an engineer.

Because of the legal definition of engineer, people with engineering studies may not have licences to designate them as such.

Engineers you did not know

Did you know that Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean, has an MSc in Electrical Engineering from Oxford University?

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Legal obligation of the engineer

Engineers have responsibilities to society
Engineers have responsibilities to society

Legal and Commercial use of the word Engineer

The word Engineer, often with a capital E, may have legal and commercial meaning. I have to address that as well.

Because of the importance of engineering to society, engineers have legal and fiduciary responsibilities.

As alluded to above and elsewhere, engineers design structures for human occupation such as trains, aircraft or buildings. These structures must be safe for human occupation. Engineers who design, build or maintain such structures have legal obligations.

Another point, and equally important, is that building such structures cost a lot of money, therefore engineers have legal obligations to protect public funds.

To be an engineer means that one is clearly identified as such at law. Therefore to be called an engineer may be designation given according to the legal definition (and not only the professional definition). An engineer therefore may be a person designated to sign project papers. Such a definition may well be extended to a firm of engineers or a public office: such as when they say; the Department of Public Works is the Engineer in this project or company XYZ is the engineer.

It is usually the case that where an office is referred to as the engineer, an actual person is identified, and when there is a personnel change all concerned parties must be notified. Specimen signatures are usually collected.

The legal obligations of the designated engineer are vast. It is not unusual for engineers to face jail time in case of loss of life.

But this is a side-bar. Complete coverage of the legal and commercial definition of engineers is a full subject.


Engineering Fields & Specializations

The are several engineering fields that one can work in. Often these fields overlap. To say that one is a civil engineer can be too much of a generalization. And yet there are a lot of engineers who choose to generalize.

Here is a list of engineering specializations,

  • Aeronautical engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Computer engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Electronics engineering
  • Manufacturing engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Telecommunications engineering

The list is not exhaustive and I make no attempt to make it complete.

My own experience is that an engineer can choose his area of specialization at anytime of his career. Crossing the floor is much easier in the engineering field than elsewhere. I hear crossing the floor can be career limiting in politics - enough of politics already in an engineering article.

A civil engineer can specialize in aeronautical engineering through designing runways. Mechanical engineers work in the aerospace field.

My advice to high school leavers intending on engineering studies is this: choose a field of engineering that interests you most as a student and then fine tune your career to suit your needs as you graduate. Passion is important both during college and after.

Some people want to study electrical engineering and enjoy working in aviation. Others want to study civil engineering and want to work in software engineering.

Others will; be controlled by job market circumstances.

Are these two professional engineers?

The two people in the forefront may or may not be engineers
The two people in the forefront may or may not be engineers

This is not engineering work

This definitely is not engineering work, though the person may or may not be an engineer
This definitely is not engineering work, though the person may or may not be an engineer

Why have engineers become popular in finance

Engineers have become very useful in economics, finance and management so much that many young people are choosing to go to engineering school as way to become bankers.

Why have engineers become popular in finance and economics?

The answer has more to do with the applicability of engineering methods in finance and economics. Engineering education has a lot of mathematics.

Engineers use mathematics to model the real world and then use the models for fast computation. The power of mathematics is that it can be used to create an abstract of any real word situation.


Can an engineer work in finance and economics

Yes, engineers have found their way into financial services where they are called Quants
Yes, engineers have found their way into financial services where they are called Quants

Enineering work

The lines you see on the tarmac are called lead-in lines and they designed by an engineer
The lines you see on the tarmac are called lead-in lines and they designed by an engineer

Is this engineering work?

Opening the engine compartment to have your hands dirty does not, on its own, make you an engineer
Opening the engine compartment to have your hands dirty does not, on its own, make you an engineer

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