By Cliff Ennico
When I was a boy, one of my favorite times of year was early September. Why? Because it was then I could look forward to returning to school (later, college).
Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid.
But seriously, the fall has always been my favorite season. I was never much of an athlete as a boy. Anything to do with running, jumping, swimming, throwing, pitching, catching, blocking, tackling, or breaking a sweat just wasn't my thing.
That didn't mean I wasn't competitive. Quite the contrary, most of my contemporaries would probably say I was one of the toughest competitors around. Just not on the athletic field. The classroom was my arena. Books, term papers, exams and science projects were my weapons. Before a blackboard I was unbeatable. Each year I looked forward to the fall semester the way a college quarterback looks forward to the Big Game. It was my chance to show that I had the right stuff and was the equal of anyone (although, truth be told, the girls weren't as impressed).
I didn't realize until recently that my nephew shared that same attitude. He enrolled as a freshman this week at a prestigious local college, with a concentration in engineering.
Now, I've given advice to young lawyers and business people before in this column, but engineering's a first for me. I don't know much about how engineers are trained, especially at the undergraduate level, but for the sake of my nephew, here's my best shot.
Prepare for the Future, Not the Past.
I wouldn't waste much time with mechanical engineering courses unless they are required. Nobody's manufacturing anything in America anymore. The future's in high technology - computer science, systems engineering, biogenetics, nano-thingies, and other areas where the United States (at least for now) maintains knowledge leadership. You want to be preparing to contribute to tomorrow's technologies, not yesterday's. You want to work for a company that is "cutting edge", not a company that's "perfecting ways of making sealing wax" (The Rolling Stones, "19th Nervous Breakdown," 1964).
This means you need to know what's happening in the technology world beyond campus. Take out subscriptions to
magazines, as well as some of the many technology oriented blogs on the Web (for a directory of some leading technology blogs, go to
). You will not understand all of the articles and blog postings at first, but commit to reading three or four a day in your area of interest and sooner or later you will be up to speed, which will help you predict which companies, industries and technology platforms will be looking for qualified engineers when you graduate.
Also subscribe to a world-class business magazine such as
. Each weekly issue has "Science and Technology" updates from around the world, and four times a year the magazine publishes a "Technology Review" section with detailed articles on new developments. Devour these articles as you would Holy Writ.
Take Some Business Courses.
A top-rate engineer can someday hope to be head of his company's Research and Development (R&D) department. A top-rate engineer with business skills can be his company's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or board chairman. Take some accounting courses and learn the language of business. Take some business mathematics courses such as probability, statistics, "finite math" and logic on which many high-tech business models are based. If your college offers classes in entrepreneurship, take them all. Technology is useless unless it can be sold to someone – learn how that happens.
Learn An Asian Language, or Two.
It's only a matter of time before leadership in most technologies passes from the United States to Asia, particularly China and India. Most colleges offer courses in Mandarin Chinese and (sometimes) Arabic. While the various Indian dialects are usually not taught in American colleges, you might be able to arrange a foreign study program (perhaps at one of the 16 prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology) where you can pick up a basic grasp of conversational Hindi or Urdu.
Go Where the Best Engineers Are.
Most colleges encourage you to take one or more terms abroad during your undergraduate years. Take advantage of this opportunity. Find out where the best engineering programs are in your field, and apply for a term abroad there. Look for summer internships with fast-growing technology companies and sign up for them, even if you have to room with 10 other students and work nights at a Burger King to stay alive. Heck, if you're interested in a particular company, shoot an e-mail to their CEO and volunteer to work for free next summer.
Most colleges require their engineering students to take some "liberal arts" courses to keep them well rounded. Make sure to include some psychology courses. Nothing is more fascinating than the study of the human mind, how it works, and what motivates people to do the things they do, and buy the things they buy.A second-rate engineer only studies mathematics and physics. A first-rate engineer studies people, and dedicates his mastery of technology to solving their problems, enhancing their enjoyment of life, and satisfying their needs, wants, fears and passions.
Or think of it this way. A first-rate engineer at a large company can command a yearly base salary of $100,000 to $200,000, perhaps a bit more. A first-rate engineer with a "marketing brain" who develops new products and technology solutions that people are actually motivated to buy can become a billionaire.
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (the founder of Facebook) all did it. It's your turn now, nephew.
) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at
. COPYRIGHT 2010 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM