What's the alternative?

Former engineer Lucas Bateman looks at why your engineering skills make you valuable to employers outside the sector

The problem

“Well, I suppose you might be able to find a research job somewhere in one of the ‘newer universities’.”

I had just asked my personal tutor whether I had a future in the sciences post graduation. Now, the snobbery regarding “research” and “newer universities” was his, not mine, but the message was as clear as it was negative and, to be honest, not much of a surprise.

I was just over a year into my engineering degree and already starting to find the maths fairly opaque. I was pretty sure I could finish and get a reasonable classification but it wasn’t going to be my future. Luckily, I had a girlfriend who was studying law and whose entire family were steeped in it. She knew exactly what I should do: “You should try and become an intellectual property lawyer.” “A what?” And so began my professional life….

The skills

The thing about engineers is that they are numerate and trained to think about and solve problems. These skills might seem self evident to any undergraduate in an engineering subject but they are far from a given in today’s graduate market.

Many students on essay-based degree courses profess a deep loathing of 'figures' and dropped maths like a hot potato as soon as they were allowed at school. They are also likely to have been trained since their GCSEs to consider topics ‘in the round’, writing essays phrased using the dreaded command: “Discuss...”

By contrast, your work over those five, six or more years has been almost entirely expressed using formulae of one sort or another and has usually been in answer to questions phrased as “solve”, “demonstrate”, “derive an expression…” and the like.

I guarantee that when you start work, you will almost never, outside of purely academic or media punditry circles, find anyone interested in paying you to “discuss” a topic. Clients and employers want answers to problems. Similarly, it’s hard to think of any job of any responsibility in which some ability to work efficiently with figures will not be necessary.

Sounds rather trite, doesn’t it? Well, I teach student barristers and my bitter experience is that one of the hardest habits to break is to stop them discussing a problem in general terms, when I need them to answer specific questions. Students with an engineering and science background don’t suffer from this habit to anything like the same extent.

Another weird thing is how many processes (legal and otherwise) work rather like formulae. With one set of start conditions and variables you will get a particular answer, but if the variables or start conditions change then the same function can give a wildly different answer. The ability to identify the assumptions made and the likely change in outcome if those assumptions change in any business document will generally mark you out as a valuable adviser.

The options

Here are some of the alternatives to an engineering career where your problem solving capabilities will be in demand:

The links above include those to the equivalent Scottish and Northern Irish associations for solicitors, accountants and barristers (advocates in Scotland). These exist as each country is a distinct legal jurisdiction with its own practices, procedures and laws. England and Wales are one legal jurisdiction, so don’t have different professional bodies.

Accountants:

Are often dismissed as drab number crunchers; the stereotype is no more fair or accurate than the one of engineers as socially inept geeks. The large firms of accountants feature heavily in the Times Top 20 Large Companies To Work for List. The roles performed by accountants are widely varied and include financial reporting, taxation, audit, corporate finance, insolvency and forensic accounting. In large firms it is possible to become highly specialised both within these roles, but also by reference to a sector. Accountants work throughout the private and public sector as employees within organisations as well as advising from external firms of accountants.

Banking, finance and 'the City':

Cover a very wide and varied set of careers and activities. The sector may be battered at the moment, but shouldn’t be dismissed. A by-product of the current and imminent lay offs and redundancies should be a shortage of people and a growing sector full of opportunities when the economic climate begins to improve. While not for the faint hearted, I am confident there will be some fantastic opportunities to be had in a recovering sector.

With both of the above, training for professional qualifications is provided or paid for by the employer and usually undertaken part time after commencing work as a trainee. It’s also my experience that technical knowledge can be a really useful asset in dealing with clients with an engineering or technology-based business, as they really value talking to advisers with a genuine interest in what they do.

Management consultants:

Include those who genuinely advise businesses on how to manage things, those who are in effect software businesses, and those who manage work  externally, under contract, for other businesses. The work can be massively varied and hugely rewarding (both intellectually and financially). It’s also notoriously tough with absurd hours and long periods away from home at short notice pretty much standard.

Patent attorneys:

As the name suggests, are specialists in drafting and prosecuting applications for patents, the monopoly rights given to those responsible for new inventions. The rights in question depend upon and come from the wording of the patent documents and the expertise of the patent attorney lies in the painstaking drawing up of these often massively complicated descriptions of the invention to be protected. Patent attorneys usually practice in an area directly related to the technical expertise of their degrees (often PhDs). The joy of working as a patent attorney lies in the wide variety of different inventions which are likely to cross your desk. A parallel career could lie in working for the UK Intellectual Property Office scrutinising patent applications and, don’t forget, Einstein himself was a patent examiner. Again, training is provided on the job, once you have commenced work as a trainee.

The law:

Is the area in which I have the most direct personal experience. We must distinguish between commercial law - where solicitors play pivotal roles in many aspects of business life, drawing up and negotiating the agreements governing most of the financial, corporate, property and other transactions that occur - and the courts (although there is overlap).

The distinctions between the two functions of barrister and solicitor are also blurred (increasingly so) but, in essence, barristers specialise in presenting a case to the court, examining and cross-examining witnesses (they're the ones most likely seen wearing wigs and gowns). The solicitor's role is traditionally more to do with gathering the evidence and other material together for the barrister to present to the court, although solicitors now do vast amounts of advocacy themselves before courts of all descriptions. Barristers also tend to be self-employed, practising out of 'chambers' (in reality a group of barristers sharing offices, and other functions), whereas solicitors work in partnerships, either as members or employees. Both professions also work in-house as employees of businesses and public bodies.

If your first degree isn’t law then you need to complete a Graduate Diploma in Law (a one-year academic introduction to the core elements of a law degree). You will then be eligible to join the law graduates on a further one-year professional course (Legal Practice Course for solicitors, Bar Vocational Course for barristers). Only once this year has been successfully completed will you be eligible to become a trainee solicitor or pupil barrister.

Superficially, this may seem attractive as an opportunity for two more years of student life. Better yet, if you can get sponsorship from a large firm of solicitors or barristers’ chambers then your fees will be paid for you and you will also receive a sum towards your subsistence during these two years. However, if you can’t get sponsorship then the fees for these courses are very high.

Furthermore, competition for places in law firms and in chambers is fierce and it is becoming increasingly common for graduates of the BVC and LPC courses to have to spend some time working as paralegals (non-qualified staff, generally lower paid and less well supported than trainees) before gaining trainee roles or pupillage.

Once you get into practice the work can be extremely varied and stimulating, depending on the fields you choose to specialise in, the firm or chambers and the part of the country (or even the world) you are located in.

As a specialist in intellectual property law, I argued over patents, copyright, design rights and trade marks, spent a lot of time working very closely with very technically minded clients and had to read and understand a lot of technical material, usually at very short notice. I have found the intellectual training of my degree invaluable in analysing problems, even where the technical knowledge was not particularly relevant.

One patent action I worked on required a detailed analysis and overview of the history of the development of international standards relating to digital television from CCIR 601 to MPEG 2. Technically it was extraordinarily complex and hugely rewarding to be involved with.

The next steps

These summaries are far too short to do the subjects justice. If you are interested in pursuing any of the careers discussed above, get online and have a good look at them. If you want to take it further, try some work experience with them, if you can, before you make any serious decisions.

I hope the above has gone some way to showing you that even if, right now, you are not convinced that you want to remain an engineer by profession, your choice of degree or career so far can prove a real asset in the next phase of your life.

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