Typically, an engineer who wants to move into management or start their own company has limited options. For a few reasons, studying economics might be the answer they’re looking for.
Carl Sherwood graduated in the early 1980s with a civil engineering degree and rose to the position of Associate Director. All up he spent almost 20 years working as a design engineer, contributing to notable projects such as various Westfield Shopping Centre developments across Australia.
Today he is the Director of Teaching and Learning at The University of Queensland’s (UQ) School of Economics. When he looks back on his time as an engineer, he doesn’t feel regret. He sees a simple issue of supply and demand.
“Most people think civil engineers get paid a fortune, but a lot of them don’t because competition for projects can be strong. However, a greater appreciation and an ability to apply economic concepts can help enhance their ability to get paid handsomely,” says Sherwood.
A lot of engineers are either looking to differentiate themselves in the job market or strike out and start their own company. Sherwood’s advice to them is to consider economics. There are a few reasons for this.
1. Engineers have a natural aptitude for economics
“Engineers are ideal economics students because of their ability to think logically and their strong mathematical skills,” says Sherwood.
Megan Gannon, Data Engineer at Boeing Defence Australia, finished her course in economics at UQ last year. She found she had an advantage over some students.
“A lot of people in the course are coming from a business background and it was a struggle for them because the maths is actually quite advanced,” she says.
2. Economics is useful for those aspiring to leadership
“As an engineer, I was in a large business and my role was purely technical,” says Gannon. “Now I can now think about both the technical side and the business side.”
After receiving her Graduate Certificate in Economic Studies from UQ, Gannon was able to move up and laterally in her career. She says studying was not only a great experience, her new employer took notice of it when she applied, and she anticipates it remaining relevant for years to come.
Of course, studying economics doesn’t just help engineers understand their current company, and accelerate their career within their industry, it can help them strike out on their own.
“Economics teaches you how to become a forward-looking thinker,” says Sherwood. “If you’re starting your own consultancy, you should be asking yourself about the nature of your company, who you will work with and what businesses you’re going to target. You can use economic theory to help make sense of all of that.”
Sherwood offers an example of the above. He had a student, an engineer and manager at a business producing railway sleepers, who said that they thought their business should operate by “pumping out as many sleepers in a shift as possible, in order to maximise profit”.
It was only as the course progressed that the student learned why this kind of thinking was fundamentally wrong.
“It neglects marginal cost, which is central to understanding profit-maximising output,” says Sherwood.
3. A new way of thinking
“Taking the course, I realised that engineering and economics are different ways of seeing the world,” says Gannon. “As an engineer you tend to be handed a problem and told to solve it. Whereas an economist is often not told what the problem is. They look at the raw data and ask, ‘What can we get out of this?’”
Sherwood agrees, saying his thinking has switched 180 degrees after learning to think like and use the language of an economist.
“I’m not an economist and still see myself as an engineer. But I have learned to think like both. As an engineer, I think in terms of calculating solutions to well defined problems. From an economist’s perspective, I’ve learned to think in terms of critically evaluating choices.”
He offers an example of this with reference to the concept of demand.
“Engineers tend to think of demand as simply referring to a particular quantity. But to an economist, demand involves a particular quantity at a price. So, unlike an engineer, economists see demand as a mathematical relationship between both quantity and price.”
The perfect course for engineers
For engineers interested in upskilling, UQ has a Graduate Certificate in Economic Studies program that is an excellent launching pad. It’s a one-year part-time program (six months full time) and has a simple pathway to a Masters for those interested. Sherwood helped design the program and he makes sure students leave with more than just a qualification.
The Graduate Certificate in Economic Studies provides opportunities for students to contextualise their learning through authentic reflection in assessment tasks. This is where students can apply theories taught in lectures to their own life experiences. For example, analysing problems affecting society such as the ‘war on waste’.
“If you build a course around these sorts of activities, it becomes relevant to students,” he says. “It means something. I don’t want students just completing courses as a box ticking exercise and not learning anything.
“I remember doing statistics as an engineering student and I retained very little. Now I lecture statistics in the School of Economics. I’ve built the majority of an introductory course around a fish farming analogy, delivering difficult concepts using everyday language that everyone can understand.”
These techniques might sound strange at first blush, but there are good reasons to trust Sherwood’s approach. Teaching students how to make sense of statistics through storytelling was the basis of Sherwood’s PhD thesis and central to him receiving an Australian Award for University Teaching Excellence (2017).
Upskill today, applications for UQ’s Graduate Certificate in Economic Studies are now open.