In a speech to an education conference last month, the Opposition leader Kim Beazley argued Australia needed more engineers and less merchant bankers to remain competitive throughout the 21st century.
An interesting point and one reiterated by many thinkers around the world. In an index developed at the Massachusets Institute of Technology, a measure of a country’s potential for innovation was the number of quality engineers it produced per head of its population. The measure is to innovation as infant mortality statistics are to development.
A Chinese student is six times more likely to choose engineering as his American counterpart. An Indian graduate is eight times more likely, according to figures from a MIT study. The figure in Australia is likely to be closer to the US, if not less.
This is of course simplistic, for there are a lot of other factors that determine a country’s economic success. Not least among these is a country’s entrepreneurial culture, a factor where the US remains unchallenged. The fact that today’s knowledge worker is highly mobile also means they will tend to work where they prefer to live, a factor advantageous to Australia’s leisure lifestyle.
But with school leavers in the midst of their final examinations and soon to decide their study paths, career choices are a topic worth discussing.
Career counsellors agree that a combination of factors affect a person’s career choice. It is usually a mixture of parental influence, role models, geography and media image. It is also agreed that in the past decade, media image has had a rising influence on career choice. As such the plethora of programs about lawyers and doctors continue to drive the top students into law and medicine. Furthermore, apparent glamour jobs like journalism are also in major demand, despite its reality of low pay and low supply.
This is despite the fact incomes in law, medicine and journalism are nowhere near the upper echelons of modern corporate salaries.
Part of the reason may be the folly of youth. If the average graduate knew what an investment banker made, or even what an investment banker was, I suspect this would dissuade some students from taking law and medicine.
But it appears this is beginning to change. At a recent open day at one of the major universities, almost every commerce, economics or maths graduate wanted a job at Macquarie Bank or a similar financial institution. Who could blame them? When you read stories of $18 million bonuses or see their employees in the young and rich lists, the fastest road to wealth becomes very clear.
Engineers meanwhile are portrayed in the media as social dropouts, chauvinists or geeks. Cartoonists depict them either with thick glasses or with their buttocks partially revealed. Never mind that it is engineers and other like-minded science professionals who have driven forward our civilisation. From inventions like the electric motor and the computer chip, to astonishing achievements like the Harbour Tunnel, it is their brains that financiers must rely on to get rich off. The home page of Engineers Australia is quick to point this out:
"The word engineer is the modern word for the Latin term ingeniator, which describes one who contrives, designs or invents. It comes from the word ingenium, which means natural talent or genius."
Interestingly, Macquarie Bank calls themselves “innovative investment bankers”, as if they might be inventing something new instead of buying out natural monopolies.
In cultures like that of India, the peak of professional status is that of a doctor or an engineer. Lawyers tend to come lower down, primarily because the structures of law and democracy have historically been less developed. But the winds of capitalism are impacting India’s social norms too. A quick look at India’s matrimonial sites reveals that the key requirement for budding suitors is now an “international MBA” and employment in a “global corporation”.
Thankfully, social status is based on many things beyond our net worth. But in societies based on the market, it is hard not to base a portion of our status entirely on how the market values our labour.
Innovation and great ideas take time, hard work and can be filled with uncertainty. When the surrounding evidence suggests it is much easier to turn over money and make a fortune rather than get our hands dirty for an uncertain gain, the likelihood of our best and brightest heading into science and technology remains limited.