The Industrial Engineer

After my college years, these are some thoughts on the history and value of an Industrial Engineering degree.

Two years ago I finished my five-plus-one year degree in Engineering. The official name goes something like “Industrial Engineer specialized in Business Management”, and despite not quite feeling like one, my academic title says so. After more than five long years working hard to earn my degree I feel like I want to talk about it, 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, at least, was1. And also why here in Spain, the figure of the IE is quite different than in other countries.

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

That’s exactly what an IE is supposed to do in the rest of the world, but Spain. 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. It makes sense.

Here in Spain — preBologna — Engineering degrees didn’t work that way. To begin with, there were two different kinds of grades: technical and superior.

  • Technical: three years grades focused on one key area, following the logical structure I mentioned above. After this three years you get a “Diplomatura”, and while this is fine to start your work path, the truth is that a lot of these students try to make their way up to a superior degree — since 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 would find Industrial, Aeronautic, Civil, Telecommunications, Informatics and some others.

When searching for the IE in the Spanish Wikipedia you are immediately 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 science of materials.

I’m not going to discuss the specifics here, but historically, the Spanish IE degree originated in the middle of the nineteenth century. Back then the IE was conceived with a broad range of attributions in order to address the growing industrial development that the country was facing at the time.

Because Spain — and other European regions for that matter, were developing fast-growing industries, they needed a key figure who could deliver a holistic approach and lead this revolution. That’s exactly what the IE was intended for, and looking back we might say that it served pretty well.

How These Engineers Fit In The Modern Industry

Back in 1850, the IE was “created” with great scientific and technological skills, but also with great insight and business vision. Surely something the country needed back then.

Fast forward 150 years and times are changing.

Regardless, the main attributions and structure of the IE, for the most part, remain the same.

Back then, the power, in an academic sense, resided in the individuals. People who gathered so much knowledge and built great things around them. But this vision has drastically changed today and the power has shifted in favor of teams.

Individuals still matter, of course, but the key thing is the synergetic effect they can deliver inside a group of people.

This is 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 during its studies is done by yourself. Even the project at the end of the five years must be individual.

Moreover, most topics are treated at a high theoretical level and on rare occasions you’ll be facing a real live problem. 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 in depth, you just scratch a lot of things and get know a lot of stuff, but you can’t concentrate enough on something to really start appreciating it in a way you can fall in love with.

Obviously, I can’t just blame my studies for not focusing on something in particular. If you feel like something matters to you, you just get the time from anywhere to learn more and master the topic. My point is that having to keep up with a lot of different 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.

As an example, I have always loved cars. The European car industry tends to recruit so many Spanish IE because of their rich profile. But as a student only got one car-related subject during 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 across separate areas. Moreover, if you are a curious person, you are able to connect a lot of dots that seemed unrelated at the beginning.

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

However, I lament that all of this knowledge was thrown at me and told to learn it. There was no purpose or goal. Everything was about passing the exam. Not the best incentive in the world. It turned the beauty of learning into a to-do list. It didn’t feel right.

It’s really sad because at the end of the day you invest so much time and money not just to collect knowledge that in you can also get straight from the Wikipedia. This approach made sense a hundred years ago when all the knowledge was not accessible and you should “go” to college in order to get it.

But today, the value of the University should lie in empowering its students to better face what’s next. Driven by outcomes and the capacity to fit in a creative group and get the most next to other individuals.

Learning should not be only a matter of passing an exam.

The learning side of the equation should be a supporting piece that comes along to fulfill a greater goal, and that’s exactly where college should come into play. Unlocking this path to greatness the knowledge you won’t find in books.

That’s something I understood, after all those years, in my own, the hard way. Because nowadays, you can walk down the street without knowing about quantum physics, but I assure you can’t keep the pace of this fast-evolving society if you don’t understand how to fit in a team.

  1. Update from 2017. Fortunately, some things change over time and they have rendered this post obsolete. Due to some major European reforms to ensure comparability of higher education programs across the European Union, the figure of the Industrial Engineer was replaced by the combination of two separate engineering degrees.
First published on August 31, 2013