I took a day off today to attend a round table held in the bilingual region of South Tyrol. The event was aimed at discussing the career prospects for engineers with undergraduates who are about to choose which university to apply for.
I was there with three distinguished engineers who made good careers as entrepreneurs and managers, and I had to share with the audience some advice about one of the most important choices in their personal and professional lives.
Each of us speakers said that what we thought we would do for living when we entered our technical universities was not at all what we ended up doing.
I for one went for electronics engineering after a period of uncertainty between literature and physics (I know, I was really young and confused at the time). The reason why I picked engineering was the fascination with a special issue of a scientific magazine about the microprocessor. I fell in love with the idea of being able to design microchips and help change the world. Of course after graduating I never designed a microprocessor. .
Today uncertainty for higher-education students is even greater than it was for us. The only certainty is that most of what they will learn in their computer science courses will be obsolete by the time they find a job.
So the advice I gave them was;
- Choose something that intrigues you and is likely to keep you excited.
- Think more about having professional fun than about career and money (becoming rich should not be your primary driver to choose a university, also because you are very likely to be wrong).
- Learn foreign languages and foreign cultures: not a big deal for them, as I was amazed to see that many were fluent in Italian, German and English, unlike most of their colleagues in the rest of my country.
- What you learn today will be obsolete tomorrow, but how you learn won’t.
This last bit is the most important. We have entered a period of uncertainty that won’t be over any time soon. When these folks will graduate, nobody knows if economy will be growing, if ICT will have created lots of job opportunities or if most IT services will have been displaced somewhere else. They will find themselves addressing new problems or more complex versions of current problems, around sustainability, economic development, social inclusion.
What will be key is the ability to face those problems, does not matter how intractable they’ll look like. That’s why the most valuable piece of their experience will be how and not what they learn.