Baby boomers and Statistics
A letter writer ticked off several readers with his tirade against inept baby-boomer engineers. Being baby boomers themselves, and engineers, it’s easy to understand their discomfort. And the statistician who says engineers can’t handle statistics also rubbed some readers the wrong way.
I do not know what industry Mr. Jones is in where he thinks he can “push” us boomers out of the way. (Bye-bye Boomers, Letters, Nov. 7). I am in oil and gas and this industry is starving for engineers. There will be a large void created by the loss of my generation. The number of people in the U. S. pursuing engineering and science degrees is down and will not keep up with demand. So Mr. Jones will get his wish, but he may want to learn Mandarin or Hindustani in order to converse with upcoming leaders in the engineering fields. Americans are being left in the dust bins of time.
I was insulted by Phil Jones’ comments concerning the quality of Baby Boom engineers. I was born in 1961 and that puts me at the end of the baby boom. I started my engineering career at Bell Labs in 1981, so I had the privilege to work with Word War II, Korean War, and Vietnam-era vets (The Baby Boomers). All of these engineers designed devices and equipment using slide rules, look-up tables, and logarithms.
The engineers I have had problems with are what I call the “Trophy Generation.” They are the generation that always got a participation trophy for soccer, T-Ball, and such. They never learned how to deal with competition and the fact that life is not fair and you can’t always be the winner. These kids all expected to be promoted to Senior Engineer a few years after starting their careers. Many of them only studied engineering because that was where the jobs were, and then just wanted to get an MBA and climb the corporate ladder, not caring who they stepped on or stabbed in the back to do it. These youngsters don’t want to go into the plant or into the field and experience problems or challenges firsthand. They prefer to sit and look into a monitor and trust the model or FEA.
I’m a mechanical engineer with 40+ years of design experience, a Fellow in the American Society for Quality, and a Six Sigma black belt. I’ve also managed engineers for a number of years. As an adjunct professor, I’ve taught statistics at the associate, undergraduate, and graduate levels to business and engineering students for a number of years. When I earned my engineering degree, no courses in statistics were offered at the undergrad level. But recognizing early on that statistics is mandatory for designing robust products, I set out to fill that void through self-study. I can’t imagine how reliable products could be consistently created without engineers extensively using statistics.
Adjunct Professor Briggs’ statements (“Nonstatisticians Often Screw Up Statistics,” Nov. 7) that engineers should leave statistics to Ph.D.’s needs a response. Understandably, using statistics incorrectly is bad. And so are ineffective classes in statistics. Professor Briggs’ proffered solution is to have engineers not study statistics and direct any problems only to those with a Ph.D. in the subject. I suggest he survey how many companies have or could afford hiring one. The answer to that survey would be approximately zero, so it’s as if he would effectively send us all back to the dark ages of avoiding investigation and considering variation in parameters affecting quality. I believe we should all fear such a day.
Students of mine over the years have consistently indicated that statistics is both one of their more-difficult subjects due to its infrequent integration into other math and sciences, but also one of the most-valuable courses they take.
Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, statistics professors teaching engineering students should get grounded in their theoretical and practical applications, teach the boundaries of proper use, and increase, not decrease the confidence of engineers in this powerful and important subject.
David E. Brown
The classical statistics taught to me at Cornell have served me well over more than 20 years. Bowker and Lieberman’s Engineering Statistics is a standard reference book still on my desk. Briggs needs to get his nose out of the air.