The Industrial Engineer

Two years ago I finished my 5+1 year degree in Engineering. They call it "Industrial Engineer specialized in Business Management", although not quite feeling like one, my academic title says so. After more than 5 years working hard to "become" an Engineer I feel like I want to talk about it and share some thoughts on the matter and try to better understand the value of these kinds of degrees.

What exactly an Industrial Engineer is?

I'll start with a brief description of what an Industrial Engineer (IE) is or was[1]. And why here in Spain, the figure of the IE is not the same as is in other countries.

If we analyze its namethe common sense tells us that its main field of study will be closely related with the industry and factories, in areas like supply chain, industrial organization, factory lay-out and other industry-related issues to boost the productivity and efficiency of industrial processes and operations.

And that's exactly what an IE is supposed to do, in the rest of the world. That's because most of the countries have engineering degrees organized following a logical structure depending on the field they study (Electrical, Mechanical, Software, Chemical... and so on). And that makes sense.

But here in Spain (before Bologna) Engineering degrees didn't work that way. To start, there were two different kinds of grades: Technical and Superior.

  • Technical: these (3 year) grades focused on one key area (like the logical structure I mentioned above). After this 3 years you get a "Diplomatura", and while this is fine to start your work path, truth is that a lot of these students try to make their way up to a superior degree (they get validated most of the credits they had already earned).
  • Superior: the superior Engineer (where IE is included) was considered a Licenciatura and for this reason treated as a superior degree from an "academic" point of view. In the superior Engineerings you could find Industrial, Aeronautic, Civil, Telecommunications, Informatics and some others. All of these have a defined work area except for the Industrial Engineer.

So when you search in the Spanish Wikipedia for the IE you are directly adverted with a paragraph that states: "Este artículo trata sobre la rama conocida como ingeniería industrial. Para las atribuciones dadas a la titulación en España, véase ingeniería industrial en España." In other words: be careful because the Industrial Engineering you might be looking at is not what we teach in Spain.

They redirect us here. So what's the difference between the rest of the world and the Spanish IE? The Spanish IE, has a broader scope in terms of fields of study. It's not limited to the industrial branch (even though it also covers this particular topic) instead it gets an interesting mix of knowledge covering mostly every science and engineering related field (from chemistry or physics to business management and material science).

I'm not going to discuss the specifics here, but the Spanish IE degree started in the middle of the 19th (yeah, nineteenth) century. Back then the IE was conceived with broad range of attributions in the growing industrial development that the country was facing at the time. Because Spain (and other European regions) were developing fast growing industries, they needed a key figure who could take a holistic approach (end to end, from the technical stuff to the business management) and guide this revolution. That's exactly what the IE was intended for, and looking back we might say that it worked pretty well.

How these engineers fit in the modern industry?

In 1850, they created a figure with great scientific and technological skills, but also with great insight and business vision. Something that I'm sure the country needed back then. The problem is fast forward 150 years, times are changing. A lot. And the main attributions and structure of the IE, for the most part, remains the same.

Back then, the power (in an academic sense) resided in individual persons. Persons who gathered so much knowledge and built great things around them. But this vision has drastically changed today and has shifted to the work team. Individuals matter, of course, but the key thing is the synergetic effect they can deliver inside a group of people.

And that's exactly the main problem with IE. It's still conceived for individuals. There's no chance to develop great skills in work groups because most of the work is done by yourself. Even the project at the end of the 5 years must be individual.

Moreover, most of the subjects are treated at a high theoretical level and in rare occasions you'll be facing a real live problem. So at the end, you end up with a group of "highly" skilled guys, who don't know anything about how the "real industry" works.

I also see another problem here, these kinds of degrees achieve something extraordinary: they turn amazing knowledge into boring data. Let's face it, more than 60% of the people I was studying with didn't feel motivated at all, and I don't think that was a random feeling.

You just scratch the surface of a lot of fields, really interesting stuff, you want more of it, but when you are nearly there, they told you to move on to the next thing. "Because there's so much to learn" you're always told. You don't get the chance to deeply explore anything, you just scratch a lot of things and get know a lot of stuff, but you can't focus on something that really matters.

Obviously I can't just blame my studies for not focusing on something. If you feel like something matters to you, you just get the time from anywhere to learn more and master the topic. But my point is that having to keep up with a lot of diverse stuff doesn't help either. In my particular case, this lack of focus was also driven by being a little immature and didn't quite know what I wanted to do next. But casually, after I finished the studies, I find myself really motivated with another unrelated topic, and started my own company, but this is something for another post.

For example, I always loved cars, and the european car industry tends to recruit so many Spanish IE because they kind of like the profile. But I only got one car-related subject in the whole degree. I mean, yes, lots of subjects related with car mechanics or physics, but just one, pointed directly to them.

So what's wrong with Industrial Engineers?

Well, in fact, there's nothing wrong with them. I think it’s a powerful degree where you get the chance to learn a lot of things on the most unrelated areas. Moreover, if you are a curious person, you are able to connect a lot of dots that seemed unrelated at the beginning.

And with a little perspective, you get a great deal of horizontal education that doesn’t put you in a job ready position for the most cutting edge technology, but it builds a strong layer of knowledge beneath you that gives you comfort in most of the situations you can be dealing with. And as time passes, you also discover that you start from a better position when you want to learn something new or face a new situation.

But I complain that all of this knowledge was thrown to me and I was told to learn it. It wasn’t an organic process or an environment where you get to develop new skills. Everything was about learning and pass the exam. That turned the beauty of learning into some duty or to do list. And it didn’t feel right.

It’s really a shame, because you invest so much time and money not just to gather some knowledge that in you can also get from the Wikipedia. That approach made sense a 100 years ago when all the knowledge was not “accessible” and you should “learn” in the University. 

But today, the value of the University should lie in empowering people with tools to better face what’s next, deeply focused skills and the abilities to fit in a group and get the most next to other people. And that’s not just about learning and passing the exam. Obviously you’ll need some background and technical skills, but learning should feel like a more organic process.

The learning part should be just a piece of the equation that comes along to fulfill a greater goal, and that’s exactly were the University should come into play. Unlocking this path to greatness and create the environment to empower students with the kind of knowledge you can’t find in books.

That’s something I understood, after all those years, in my own, the hard way. Because today, you can walk down the street without knowing what the hell the Schrödinger Cat is, but I assure you can’t keep the pace of this fast-evolving market without getting the most of your team, understanding people and being proactive. Because if all you want to do is learn quantum physics, some Wikipedia and a Kindle will do the trick.

[1] The thing is, this post is outdated by the time I’m writing it. That’s because due to some major European reforms to ensure comparability in the standards of higher education across the Old Continent, the figure of the Industrial Engineer (IE) doesn’t exist anymore. At least not as a single degree, but you can achieve the same with a combination of some of the new degrees.