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It’s Scary that Young Engineers Don’t Have These Skills

January 07, 2019 by Emily Gray-Fow

While younger engineers might feel that their shiny new degrees make their skillsets more relevant, most established electrical engineers with years of experience have these necessary skills that haven't hit history books yet.

It’s startling to think that in the general non-engineering population, only 57% of adults feel confident in wiring a UK 3-pin plug, and one in five UK adults aren’t confident in changing a light bulb, according to a recent survey by Aviva insurance. If this is the state of society’s basic electronics experience, what about our newest and most inexperienced electrical engineers?

The End of Hands-On Experiences

Sadly, practical engineering skills seem to be on the decline throughout all engineering disciplines, with younger engineers bearing the brunt of the problem. Our crowded cities and service-based economy mean fewer young people grow up with a workshop in the garage. Likewise, similar to learning an instrument or getting ahead in sport, practical engineering skills take practice if you want to become proficient or expert at them.

Other skills that will die out within a generation are those that are now done largely by computer or calculator. All well and good when these things are working, but what happens when batteries die and there isn’t an older engineer around who knows how to do things the old-fashioned way?

While no one expects to see a box of slide rules or log tables make a re-appearance anytime soon, an increasing number of younger engineers are increasingly reliant on digital devices for even basic arithmetic. These are just a handful of classic engineering skills that have become lost to the digital ether over the last decade or so.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Paper Trails

When I was at school, mobile phones were still really just ‘car phones’ due to the huge battery packs. We believed the teachers when they told us that we “wouldn’t have a calculator with us wherever we went when we grew up.”

How wrong they were – now every smartphone can easily be a graphing calculator, and many younger engineers find both long division and paper map reading torturously slow because of this new convenience. Needless to say, they wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a slide rule. They’re something to be admired in museums, right?

Don’t forget drafting large designs by hand. And I don’t mean simple ‘back of the napkin’ sketches. Drafting a larger circuit diagram or the design for the object to put it in are all things that we rely on computers to do for us these days.

Designing Complex Analogue Circuits

In this era of highly integrated circuits, it’s often possible to find a chip or pre-made board that will do everything you need it to. Having to think about the whole circuit – including things like impedance, gain, how many transistors to use and where – is fading into the past.

Modern circuit design is more like “find an IC or set of ICs that does the job, attach pins and power supply as per data sheet, tell chip what to do, sign it off”. Unless you work for an IC design enterprise, you’ll have little input into the actual design of what you’re using. And even then, you’re trying to make something that does as many jobs as possible for minimal cost, rather than a streamlined and sophisticated solution to your current problems.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Electrical Taping

I could go on and on about the loss of practical skills in general, but apparently taping rather than using heat shrink is becoming a lost art. With the huge range of job and size specific heat shrink and other insulation kits available, it’s rare that younger engineers need a tape solution. Despite all this, it’s never a given that the right kit will be on hand when something needs insulating, and, of course, it must be done correctly to be safe.

So, why haven’t I included practical engineering skills on this list? These are all skills that have fallen out of favour. Despite the decline in practical engineering skills taught in university, they’re still very much in demand across all engineering disciplines.

Even the skills on this list deserve to be remembered, and some, like correct taping, should be a lot more popular than they are currently. It’s up to us to make sure that other practical skills don’t become side notes into the history books. In many cases, younger engineers don’t even know what they’re missing.

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