Make the call: should you be an engineer?

More than just a degree: Opportunities abound in many branches of engineering and technology as creativity and critical skills are increasingly in demand

At the age of 17 or 18, making a big decision about the future is a tough call. Students will no doubt have heard that there are copious job opportunities in the world of engineering and technology – in particular construction and civil engineering – but is this a good enough reason to pursue a career in it? And that’s just one of the many questions they may have.

Why engineering?

Engineers have long since been the butt of jokes about the chronically boring, but there’s perhaps nothing more creative than building something entirely from scratch, with your imagination as the starting base. Every single product you see, from the keys in your pocket to the desk you sit at, from the phone in your hand to the walls around you are, in fact, the product of an engineer’s mind. Indeed, we’d all be living in caves unless some bright spark had invented the wheel or used tools to make fire (although, arguably, we’d never have had such things as work and school if we had maintained simple and easy lives of hunting and gathering).

Meanwhile, computer scientists and software engineers focus on creating and maintaining the computer systems and programmes that have become crucial for society to function. Data science is emerging as a hugely important area for all sectors of society, with researchers at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics – a collaboration between several Irish third-levels – proving themselves among the most innovative in Europe. Athlone IT has a particular specialism in polymer (plastics) technology, which tends to have a low points requirement but high demand for its graduates. Maynooth University has developed a niche specialism in wearable electronics, while the Institute of Technology in Tallaght's close proximity to the hospital has given the students a chance to work closely on medical devices.


What are careers in engineering like?

"People can tend to think of engineering as purely technical, but at least half of the learning outcomes on any college course are focused on communication skills, team-building, lifelong learning and social responsibility," says Damian Owens, registrar with Engineers Ireland and a chartered engineer. "These are transferable skills that are valuable to many employers, and many engineers will actually go on to work in areas such as banking or insurance. During the recession, a lot of civil engineers transferred to building wind turbines."

An engineering qualification gives graduates an international edge as their skills can be used anywhere in the world. "It travels well and can be recognised in Australia or the US," says Owens. "We accredit courses in all the universities and institutes of technology and the qualifications are widely recognised."

What course should I consider?

Not sure? Every university in Ireland offers general entry engineering courses, usually allowing students a flavour of chemical, civil, mechanical and electronic engineering in first year before then moving on to specialise from second year onwards. Owens advises that even students who think they may already be settled on an engineering speciality consider these courses, as they may be surprised to find there’s another area that takes their fancy.

But there are other, more specialised, engineering courses such as biomedical technology at Trinity, DCU, NUI Galway, GMIT and UCD, as well as aeronautical engineering at UL. Courses in sustainable energy engineering are on offer and computer science courses are also quite popular, with UCD offering one of the most widely respected courses of its type in Europe.

“Don’t rule out apprenticeship schemes,” says Owens. “There are a variety of entry routes in the profession, and working as an apprentice allows you to gain skills on the job and still get an academic qualification.”

Bear in mind that engineering courses tend to have long hours and a full course load, particularly compared to some subjects in the humanities area.

What are the points like?

Points for many engineering and technology courses fell in 2017, despite Government initiatives to attract young people into the industry on foot of warnings from employer bodies of critical skills shortages in the sector and a lack of suitably qualified engineering graduates, particularly in the construction area.

In 2017, points for common-entry engineering at UCC fell from 490 to 454, at UCD from 515 to 499 and at NUI Galway from 445 to 401, although points did rise at UL from 430 to 433 and at Maynooth University from 325 to 364.

Data science at UCD required 454 points in the first year of its launch, while computer science at UCD required 477 points and biomedical engineering at NUI Galway required 480.

Is engineering a very male-dominated profession?

Extensive efforts are being made on an ongoing basis to attract women to the profession, particularly through initiatives such as Science Foundation Ireland’s Smart Futures programme which involves experts going into schools, sharing their expertise and giving students a chance to ask any questions they may have, as well as Steam Education which brings industry professionals, academics and youth educators to primary schools to co-ordinate a programme of events.

But there is still some way to go to address the gender balance.

“The image of an engineer is someone in a hard hat and boots bashing at metal, but female participation has improved, particularly in areas such as biomedical,” says Owens. “It’s also a question of discussing how engineering can help alleviate problems like water shortages and environmental sustainability.”

What if I’m not great at maths?

“Engineering doesn’t require maths for the sake of maths,” says Owens. “And not all engineering courses necessarily need honours maths. What you do need, however, is the maths needed for the particular branch or branches of engineering you will be working on. A lot of the third-levels, if not all of them, have resources there to support first years in their initial learning. First year, for that matter, is not a deep dive into paths; the emphasis now, particularly at the early stages, is on creativity, innovation and working groups to give students a chance to see what engineering is all about. They’ll be dealing with people, working on project management and analytically laying out and communicating ideas.”

The best way to find out the course content – and how much maths may be needed – is to check the website of the courses of interest and contact the course co-ordinators in the college if needed.

Saving lives on Earth or sustaining life on Mars? You choose

Anyone fancy a trip to space? How about saving hundreds of lives and improving the conditions of workers in developing countries? These are among the tasks that engineers work on.

Ilaria Cinelli is a PhD student in biomedical engineering at NUI Galway. Her work takes place at the intersection of medicine, the human body and engineering, and her PhD is focused on neural engineering, which is about understanding how the human body and its nervous system can interact with technology. Last year, she was selected as commander of Crew 172, an international mission for the Mars desert research station.

"I've done six missions now," she says. "We are carrying out research and experimentation in some of the most isolated places on Earth, including the Mojave desert and Antarctica, to help gather data for a human mission to Mars which will help see how humans can cope with the changes their bodies will go through in space. We're doing pilot studies on emerging technologies, using a mix of augmented and virtual reality as well as 3-D printed surgery. I'm currently testing mental performance in space and, ideally, yes: I would love to go to space."

Aidan Madden is an engineering consultant with global firm Arup. From a young age, he watched his father – a carpenter and small building contractor – making things, and it awoke an interest in him. He studied engineering in UCD, specialising in civil engineering. Recently, Madden won the prestigious international engineer of the year award at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards for his work on structurally assessing almost 4,000 factories in Bangladesh on foot of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 people.

“We were hired to look at the structural safety of buildings and whether they needed to be closed, remediated or strengthened,” he explains. “In 2014, I led a team to develop a methodology that could assess all the factories and take what action was needed. We developed guidance material to assist in the remediation effort and build capacity for the government of Bangladesh.”

So, go to Mars or save lives on Earth? It’s up to you, but engineering can help you get there.