What Is Engineering Technology?
Engineering technology is a major ingredient in the economic development of America and the world at large. Yet it’s a discipline that few people actually know about, or really understand.
This observation is one of the core findings of a 2017 report – Engineering Technology Education – presented to members of the House Manufacturing Caucus and the Senate Competitiveness Caucus, in Washington, DC. The report, published by the National Academy of Engineering, shows that while workers in the field of engineering technology (ET) play an important role in supporting U.S. technical infrastructure and the country’s capacity for innovation, there remains little awareness of ET as a field of study or category of employment.
In this article, we’ll attempt to redress this balance – defining terms and exploring the responsibilities and tasks taken on by engineering technologists in today’s economy.
Engineering Technology Defined
The terms “engineer”, “technologist”, and “technician” are often used interchangeably. However, while considerable overlaps exist between these disciplines, there are clear distinctions between them.
In theory and practice, engineering and engineering technology share a common foundation of knowledge in math, science, engineering, and design principles. During the engineering process, an engineer assumes responsibility for the research, analysis, design, and development of a project. The engineer’s skills are largely conceptual, requiring an understanding of complex math, science, and the fundamental principles of physical design.
Engineering technology may be described as the “practical applications arm” of engineering. Once a project engineer has determined that an idea is theoretically feasible within the parameters observed in the physical world, the main task of the technologist is to translate the engineer’s idea into practical reality. To apply engineering principles in a tangible, “real-world” manner, the technologist typically performs a number of tasks related to testing, evaluation, production, and technical analysis.
Distinct from both the engineers and the technologists are the technicians. Engineering technicians are charged with making sure that all machines being used for a particular project are fully functional and working in accordance with the technologist’s real-world adjustments to the engineer’s conceptual designs.
So, in a nutshell, the engineer creates designs, the technologist works out how to make those designs solid in the real world, and the technician keeps the required technology working throughout the process.
Requirements for Training
Laboratory exploration is the cornerstone of academic programs in Engineering Technology. Technical studies are typically supplemented by lab exercises in which students learn to operate state-of-the-art scientific and technical equipment, and to appreciate its capabilities and limitations.
Budding engineering technologists generally require at least a four-year bachelor’s degree. While four-year engineering programs usually focus on high-level math and theoretical science, engineering technology programs at university level typically lay their emphasis on practical mathematics and applied science. Moreover, bachelor’s degrees in engineering technology largely focus on the application of specific engineering techniques.
Some universities offer a specialized bachelor’s degree in engineering technology. Generally, though, tertiary level engineering technologist programs give students the knowledge and skills needed for entry-level positions in areas like product development, manufacturing, product assurance, and program management.
Master’s degree programs prepare ET professionals to work with greater independence, perform more sophisticated tasks, or to advance into supervisory roles. Such courses are offered at traditional universities and online for technologists looking to gain advanced skills in their field, or for those seeking to adapt to the changing engineering landscape.
Historical Uses of Engineering Technology
The origins of the engineering profession date back to ancient times. Starting from around 2600 B.C., many structures and inventions were strategically planned and constructed by specialist workers who would today be classified as engineers. Such individuals were responsible for the design and construction of both “street level” projects and the wonders of the ancient world.
As this infographic from the School of PE website illustrates, the discipline has undergone significant evolution since then.
(Image Source: School of PE)
Digital technology has been a key element of the engineering landscape for several decades now. Computer-Aided Design (CAD) techniques, sample analysis, real-time or predictive modeling, and general data processing are just some of the areas in which today’s engineering technologists contribute.
How Important Is Engineering Technology Today?
According to the report on The Role of Engineering Technology in Education Today submitted to the U.S. Congress by eight select members of a panel called to Capitol Hill, there were nearly 94,000 four-year engineering degrees, nearly 18,000 four-year ET degrees, and more than 34,000 two-year ET degrees (the formal qualification standard for engineering technicians) awarded in the U.S. in 2014. (The most recent data available shows that between 2016 and 2017, more than 116,000 bachelor’s degrees in engineering were conferred along with 17,159 bachelor’s degrees in engineering technologies.)
The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report carried out a survey of nearly 250 employers of engineering technicians and technologists. Of this group, 30% of respondents said they had never heard of ET education. In addition, one-third of the respondents said they didn’t know the difference between the work performed by engineers and the work performed by engineering technologists.
The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and in its recommendations the report suggested that this organization should consider funding research into the factors affecting matriculation, retention, and graduation in engineering technology. In addition, the study concluded that further research was required to better understand the reasons for the apparently loose association between degree attainment and employment in ET.
For example, understanding why black students graduate at higher rates from ET programs than they do from engineering programs, and why fewer women are represented in ET than they are in engineering, may allow programs in both domains to better attract and retain more diverse student populations.
Increasing levels of awareness and improving the educational ecosystem are both vital tasks, the report concludes.
“The U.S. innovation economy, like all others in the world, depends on its highly educated engineers, engineering technologists, and technicians,” said National Academy of Engineering (NAE) President C. D. (Dan) Mote, Jr.
Job Opportunities for Engineering Technologists
To gain employment with a degree in engineering technology, graduates should possess several skills. These include a strong understanding of mechanical or digital concepts and tools, real-world problem-solving skills, the ability to communicate well and collaborate with others, and a willingness to think outside the box. ET degree graduates are strong candidates for jobs in the STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
As engineering applications extend into a broad range of industries and market sectors, this generates an increasing need for qualified analysts, designers, technicians, and technologists. This screenshot from Zippia.com illustrates the major career paths for engineering technologists that lead to dozens of potential posts.
(Image source: Zippia.com)
Recruits with an ET qualification assure employers of an understanding of the key facets of problem-solving in a real-world environment, and a familiarity with the capabilities of state-of-the-art technology. As a result, engineering technology employment prospects look bright for the future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 139,300 new openings in engineering professions are expected between 2016 and 2026 as their services will be in demand in various areas such as rebuilding of infrastructure, renewable energy and robotics. Due to the rapidly-changing nature of the modern world, new technologies will be needed to respond to the changing needs of humanity – and more engineers, technicians and technologists will be required to deliver them.