The "Jack of all trades" problem

The use of the word "engineer" to describe anyone even vaguely technical rankles, but an assumption that engineers can make or fix anything is equally irritating writes the Secret Engineer.

One of the accusations that generally gets flung about round here is that the term "engineer" is used far too freely. The perceived degradation that comes with its use for technicians and mechanics seems to invariably cause ire and to raise hackles.

However I would suggest that the lack of understanding by all and sundry regarding what engineers are, and engineering is, has another undesirable side effect.

Thus it is not only a problem that those who are not qualified to be called so are considered engineers, there is also the fact that if you are an engineer then you are personally expected to have a breadth of knowledge and skills that range all the way from designing a nuclear reactor to whittling a nut and bolt out of a couple of lumps of steel using nothing more than a blunt penknife. There are people I know who could do either, and possibly one or two who could do both, but these particular individuals fall into the “genius” or possibly even “savant” categories.

If you let slip you are an engineer then you open the flood gates to “Could you just fix this doo-hickey, the spring's missing but I'm sure it will be easy for you" – after all you're an engineer.

Speaking for myself, I fully admit that I'm not great at the “practical” stuff. I know that there are some who will reel in horror at such a revelation, wondering how you can pursue a successful career in engineering when you find it difficult to even cut a piece of bar straight. I can tell you that so long as you've had a go at this sort of stuff you can develop a feel for it, even if that feel cannot be translated into worthwhile application.

I can also tell you that it is a frequent source of frustration, thinking “if I can just quickly hack this widget out I can prove the principle I am trying to introduce” – and then having to wait until someone else can do it for you. I am actually a lot better than I used to be but a natural lack of dexterity coupled to occasional problems with fine movement of the digits ensures I will never be a craftsman in this sense.

Unfortunately though, if you let slip you are an engineer then you open the flood gates to “Could you just fix this doo-hickey, the spring's missing but I'm sure it will be easy for you – after all you're an engineer.” No matter the protestations, much like a doctor at a dinner party is expected to successfully diagnose a problem from the vaguest of symptoms, you are seen as this mystical being. This blasé view of professional capability tends to manifest itself in a different way at work, or at least such are my experiences at the moment.

I know that when I talk of engineering, you and I realise that this covers a multitude of specialist areas. The knowledge required to carry out a particular role tends to overlap with others but that does not make you an expert in someone else's field.

As a Senior Design Engineer, I am aware of production techniques and theories - such that I can design sympathetically for ease of manufacture - but you wouldn't expect me to design a set of mould tools or set up a complex production line with timed routings. Unfortunately though some think that an engineer, is an engineer, is an engineer. Thus I have recently been asked, without any guidance or experience, to produce a set of assembly build instructions for an existing product that I have had no involvement with.

Of course I could do it given the time and access to relevant information but, as I rather firmly pointed out, it would be much better for the Production Engineer to actually do it. As it happens it was passed on to the Electronics Engineer. After all he's an engineer so he can do anything – can't he?