The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Engineers Are Cool


My father was an engineer and I like to think that if I was not dyslexic, with the resulting poor academic record at school, I would be one too. In any event, I ended up being a technician  (mainframe computer), which meant that I got to hang out with a lot of engineers, thereby developing an abiding respect for that profession.

Why We Need Engineers

My father used to say that an engineer is someone that can do for ten shillings (say 50 cents) what any damned fool can do for a pound (dollar).

But there is more to it than that. Engineers understand the world around us in a way that the rest of us don’t. They don’t rely on intuition, guesswork, and yes, bullshit. They can draw, calculate and envision the world as it really is. And it is amazing how often what is “obvious” to us lay people about how something works, or will work, turns out to be totally wrong when exposed to an engineer’s analytical skills.

Having said that, engineers are not infallible and empirical information gathering by experienced lay people has value too, as does pure design—products from Apple Computer are the embodiment of that last point.

A Big Thank You

Which brings me to Matt Marsh, full time staff engineer here at Attainable Adventure Cruising Ltd, World Headquarters. Seriously, Matt is a young engineer with an interest in boat design who lives in Ontario. He has been a steady presence in the comment streams on this site. When technical subjects have got beyond my understanding, Matt has been there to explain the engineering reality clearly and concisely. Thanks Matt.

Matt has also made a huge contribution, both in the comments and behind the scenes, to our Adventure-40 project. Thanks again, Matt.

A Great Source

Lately, Matt has been writing about boat design. If you go to sea in a sail or motorboat, or aspire to, I urge you to head on over to Matt’s site. You will be better informed and much less susceptible to bullshit afterward.

Everything Matt writes is interesting, useful and informative, but the following articles are particularly germane to offshore sailing and the Adventure-40 project:

Also check out the very cool and innovative motor boat that Matt designed for himself and is in the process of building.

A Quick Rant

One other thing: I believe that the single most important thing we, as a society, can do to tackle the miserable situation the developed world is in today is create education systems that produce more engineers like Matt Marsh. If for no other reason than we need a lot more rational analysis, like this, to combat the ignorance, stupidity and political grandstanding that is preventing us from getting to grips with the world’s pressing problems.

Or, to put it another way, we need fewer MBAs and lawyers, way fewer bankers and finance professionals, and a lot more professional engineers. More people properly trained for a trade, like I was lucky enough to be (thank you NCR Corporation), would not be a bad idea either.

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As an engineer, I can say the problem is that the money isn’t there. Smart people that aren’t necessarily drawn to engineering are fantastically financially encouraged to go to law school, med school, and business school in the United States and possibly elsewhere.

Starting salary out of law school – $100-150k
Starting salary out of business school – $90-135k
Starting salary of attending physician – $125-300k
Starting salary of engineering with a master’s degree – 70-85k


Hi David

I’d suggest the differential is even greater in the UK. Engineers (whatever the discipline) aren’t viewed in the regard they should be either in financial or status terms – perhaps it’s all part of the ‘ easy money’ syndrome that is at least partly responsible for the current mess we’re in. Engineering is far too often dismissed as an oily back -street operation, not the demanding, time served suite of skills that it really is.

But maybe that’s about to change, as there is currently a glut on newly graduated lawyers etc., and not only are jobs very hard to come by, but the pay levels have plummeted, too. My son Guy decided early on that he would follow his heart and study engineering ( the only one of his friends who did), and now has a good career ahead of him working a a systems engineer at GE.

With the belated realisation in the west that we are going to have to get back to actually making things that the world wants, I’d suggest that he may be more secure in the longer term than some of his peers.

Best wishes



Yeah I would agree that engineering status has definitely fallen in the United States as well. Engineers used to be on the same level of status as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. Not so much anymore.

Abel van Staveren

Colin, David,

Agree that the right incentives are required to promote engineering. Hopefully market forces will address that but we have seen that markets can stay irrational for a very long time. Culture is probably are stronger driver. Take the German speaking part of the world as an example. Engineers have high status, consequently have higher salaries. And look what that has done for the German economy. It thrives on its engineering exports. I see the same in Switzerland where I currently live. If two people have the same role in a company but one is an engineer, then he/she will get paid more for doing the same job. That is how highly engineers are regarded. I am seeing the same trend on my travels to India and China. So countries that do not take care of their engineers might seriously lose any competitive advantage they may have. On a global level, all the challenges we face in terms of environmental pressures, renewable energy end feeding a growing global populations, will likely have to be solved with engineering solutions rather than legal or financial solutions. I think the market will react in due course so the future for engineers looks bright.


I’ve seen the opposite in the US. Every smart engineer I know (I’m 31) is slowly getting out of engineering by getting an MBA because the pay is much better.


As someone who’s about to enter their third year of engineering at university I think one of the main reasons people don’t want to study engineering is because it lacks sexiness. Every TV show is about a doctor/lawyer and not an engineer.


We need a show showcasing engineers fighting management to ensure the safety and quality of the products. I’ve definitely had drama filled shouting match arguments (on par with Dr. Cox / Dr. Kelso style feuds [Scrubs]) in my last role at a major helicopter company.

Paul Mills

Like John, my dad was an engineer, and I spent time as a sprog around his factory and still have an abiding love for the smell of machine oil and the smell that grinding/machining metal makes.
At school I loved metalwork and woodwork but was pushed to academic subjects as the way ahead…. . I really enjoy designing things and being the relatively unskilled guy around inspirational people who can design, engineer and create with their hands. One of the best years of my life (sorry Hazel) was when I spent a winter helping three very skilled guys rebuild the interior of a Brixahm sailing trawler.

I fully agree with John’s rant, and love the German system whereby hands on type apprenticeship have great standing.


Matt Marsh

John- thanks for the compliments!

David- If only engineering salaries were that good! In Ontario, $85k doesn’t show up until Level C, i.e. a P.Eng licence and 7+ years of experience (after a 4-year degree).

Filip- I guess we’ll just have to find a way to make engineering sexy again…

Paul- Good tradespeople are indispensable. On more occasions than I can count, I’ve had a machinist or technologist look at a drawing and say “looks OK, but if you change this and this, it’ll take me half as long to build and cost 20% less”- and after incorporating their ideas, the thing does indeed work better. It would be presumptuous and arrogant for an engineer or manager to think he has nothing to learn from the guys in the shop.


Absolutely true regarding the shop guys. I have heard a similar quote many times and it usually results in a better product in terms of quality, cost, schedule or all three….usually you can only pick two 😉


@ Matt,

I’m using NYC and DC prices…. mileage may vary.

Simon Wirth

I have to agree that more engineers and less MBA and financial types would be better.
But I’m not entirely certain I agree with you as it is the true problem. I’m from Switzerland, and “the German system” has, as I see it, one great flaw. They try to get everyone to go to school until at least 19. I agree that this is the way if you want to have more people going to the university.
Our educational system has one great difference to the german one. I started my apprenticeship when I was 16, working 3 days a week working in the factory, training as an machine electrician, 2 days in school. Finishing that, I went studying, taking with me the knowlage how it is to actualy build things.
I belive that this is whats really needed. An educational system that allows anyone with sufficient skill to get anywhere he wants. Not everyone is able to see why he should be learning and not enyoing life with, say 20.
I think when you have the possibility to go there when ever you’re ready for it, more will go again, sexy or not.

Nothing is easy in life, but we should try to make everything possible.


In the United States, the government wants EVERYONE to go to college and to facilitate this, they give super cheap loans to everyone and everyone. This has caused a bubble in the cost of education. Tuition and costs are skyrocketing at double, triple, and quadruple the rates of inflation because of cheap credit. It’s the same thing we saw with the housing bubble in the United States. Furthermore, there’s been no focus on getting useful degrees. We’re seeing people graduate from programs with tons of debt and with absolutely no method to pay it back just like we saw with the no income needed loans the government gave to the housing industry. The worst part is that the giant tuition spikes (due to increased demand for education… when more people apply and want to come at no regards to cost you can easily raise the cost) haven’t been followed with increased value. They’ve gone to fund giant gyms, condo-like dorm rooms, and other such non-value added things. The American higher education system is a bubble and it’s got to pop soon.


From my not so lofty perspective, it goes a lot deeper than starting salary.

I’ve recruited engineers for nearly 40 years. Broadly, there are three kinds — those who create new engineering concepts, those who morph those concepts into practices and those who apply the practices.

The demand across those types has changed greatly since the end of WWII. At the end of The War, there was an explosion of consumerism fired by the need to reapply the manufacturing base away from war toward commerce. “New concept” engineering took off like gang-busters. The returning workforce provided plenty if practical engineers, it was up to the university system to provide the others. But for a while, engineers could not be produced fast enough.

WHY? because people could imagine a far better world and wanted to create it.

As we moved away from The War, the over-supply of practical engineers saw salaries stagnate, the money was still in new concepts and morphing them. As the US moved away from heavy manufacturing, toward “light,” toward a services dominated economy, new concepts engineering stayed robust in the electronics and information domains but began to lag elsewhere. Engineering intensive manufacturing (i.e, aviation, ship building) consolidated and reduced the competition and need for talent and salaries showed it.

On top of that, engineering tool creation reduced the gross level of man hours and skill required to do engineering, regardless of industry-wide contraction and consolidation.

On top of that computer controlled/robotic processes distanced practical engineers from what was really going on on the plant floor — many have become equipment supervisors. Most make less than the very rare tool and die makers (if you can even find them).

In 1977, I could offer a concepts engineer about the same as a doctor/lawyer with a 10-15-25% pop for a masters degree. In 1987, that had lagged by about 10%. In 1997, another 15% was gone.

In 2007, I gave up, because the talent pool wasn’t particularly talented — people’s salary expectations were entirely out of line with their educational preparation. Masters graduates had roughly a BS level of understanding in very much narrower slices of engineering than in ’77.

The university system is turning out too many, less capable people because the university system has become an industry first, rather than a needs based educational domain.

WHY? Because people can no longer imagine a far better world and would rather litigate the parsing of this one — and agonize about the latest health wrecker being described almost nightly on the news.

When I graduated HS in ’67 it was about getting to the moon…today it’s about downloading the newest app for free.

Until we have leadership or crisis that will pull/push people back into imagining a far better world, why would we create a pool of real talent to get the job done? Also, If I were in a policy position, I’d stop diluting the engineering talent and salary pool with technicians with engineering degrees. But to move the world one has to have a place to put the lever and that’s missing for the moment.

A word on the apprentice-journeyman-master system. There is no doubt this system has produced some incredibly capable people. However it’s record with respect to innovation is less storied. Certainly there are examples of innovators, but the industrial revolution , and engineering writ large, was about creating concepts the A-J-M system simply couldn’t.

Simon Wirth

Chris, that is really interesting. I never thought about the reasons for the change you describe. Probably that’s because I’m too young and never saw the rush ahead after the war.

Sadly, history proves that one of the greatest forces for innovative thinking is a war.

I think you’re right about the A-J-M systems flaws. It really tends to narrow ones view. It certainly narrows mine.
For me, the reason not to go after a Master degree and stay with my practical BS (more or less unique to Switzerland, I believe), is that University Masters have become narrower in their knowledge. If that is because Sciences have become so much more complicated or because students have to finish faster, I don’t know.


Great comment Chris; Definitely something to ponder.


I have thought about this question a great deal. Though with only 30 years of engineering and management experience I’m feeling like a bit of a neophyte here!

I grew up in a great time for engineering and science. I had moon landings as a child, the shuttle during college and in my early professional engineering days there was Hubble and the International Space Station. I was fortunate enough to get on projects like the Venus Radar Mapper (Magellan), Jupiter probes (Galileo), weather and communication satellites…..and a fantastically hard problem that had global impact: how to get TV transmitted from geostationary orbit to an 18inch dish without interfering with every other satellite in the area (it is a long way 🙂 It was exciting to be part of all this. But then it got boring….NASA seemed broke (no more probes), satellites all looked alike to me, Star Wars went belly up (I was too young to think about the moral implications – it was the technology that fascinated me) – and so I went on to something else for a few years. My point being that challenges need to be there in some form or another in order to meet the needs of the “engineer” that fulfills the requirements of the article. As long as the salary is high enough to make life reasonably comfortable, I’ve found it takes a back seat to a really interesting project. This is where Governments can make a big difference. It doesn’t really matter what they fund – space programs, alternative energy, the next particle collider – just needs to be challenging and grand. New companies will be instantly created to meet the technical challenges. The goal of the program itself is not nearly as important as the new engineers and technologies that will result. It will pay for itself much as the space program did. We don’t do much with moon rocks, but we do a heck of a lot with the technology spawned because of the investment – from integrated circuits to life rafts…and Tang 🙂

I had an amazing set of early opportunities. Ham Radio provided me the transition from tubes to ICs and then to digital radio. I thought Heathkit was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But most importantly, the media talked well of engineering and science. They showcased the cool things going on. There are still cool things being built and discovered, but they don’t get near the public attention that politics and bickering get. Society shifted it’s emphasis. How much media attention was given to SpaceX’s recent accomplishments? It was kind of a 1 day side line here. I have seen what appears to me as a steep drop off in things that would nurture a technically creative mind.

These hobbies are very important to getting people interested in pursuing engineering careers. My best engineers have one thing in common….they all have related hobbies and passions. I got my first job not because I had a physics degree, but because I was a Ham Radio operator who had annoyed my mother by stringing up homemade antennas all over the roof and yard (and, horribly, in sight of the neighbors!). That ended up being the focus of my job interview and now I realize its importance. And to think I tossed that on my resume at the very last moment under “interests” trying to take up some more space on the page!

To create the next generation of engineers, opportunities need to exist and the most interesting/challenging are usually in small, struggling companies. Unfortunately, the only capital available today for technical companies seem to be for the social media genre, or what seem to me like get rich quick software applications. This doesn’t “grow” engineers. For example – and I’m not knocking Facebook (at least not in this post 😉 – I don’t know a single good engineer or developer than finds Facebook, as far as technology, even remotely interesting or challenging. If they are involved, it’s for the prestige or money. I’ve had investors tell me they will only invest in software and pretty much just the “apps” or cloud services….essentially the low capital, high risk/high return investment. I look at these investor portfolios and am somewhat astonished at the kinds of products they do invest in. Unfortunately, engineering is expensive and the training of new engineers out of school even more so. The investor returns can be good, but not as good as hitting a Facebook home run that requires relatively little capital. Then again, the chances of failure are not as high either. I am continually surprised when some piece of engineering we did ends up being marketable in an area we never even considered – the virtues of good design. There are lots of companies like mine and, sadly, the capital is hard to come by. There is plenty of discussion about solving these issues in both the private and public sectors – but it is generally just talk. Until this investor mind set changes, I don’t anticipate a significant resurgence of quality professional engineers.

But there is good news! I saved the best for last. I am seeing a tremendous comeback in the hobbies that are so valuable to learning engineering skills and creating enthusiasm. Dale Dougherty founded MAKE Magazine, which begot the highly successful Maker Faires. Ham Radio is seeing renewed interest. I see many How-To sites popping up that are not only teaching basic circuits, but carrying students right through schematics, layout, assembly and test! New kits for electronics and radios. Even online VHDL and Verilog tutorials for FPGA beginners….wonderful. Plenty of Open Source software projects to get involved in (Note to new developers – I will spend way more time looking at contributions made to a project than I will looking at the classes taken). Even shows like Myth Busters, which can inspire budding engineers (and us older ones 🙂 are popular now. So I am seeing a shift in people getting involved in engineering, at least at the hobbyist and amateur levels, but I believe that’s where it all starts. Maybe it was just a lull and we are swinging back. And I am always encouraged by the Matts of the world.



It’s amazing what hobbies can do for a career. I got my first job as an engineer at a Helicopter company not because of my Mechanical Engineering degree which was directly applicable but because they loved the fact that I was a computer hacker on the side, and that became a substantial part of my job; re-engineering some of their test equipment and servers and being them into the 21st century.

I also know people that have stayed at the helicopter company, despite the horrible pay, because they LOVE the work they are doing. They are inspired by the problems and solutions that they come up with. Of course the company does indeed pay horribly because they know that the hard core engineers that love to work there will work there at any pay rate.


I received an offline question about my credentials. I’m a Biochemical Engineer (once) specializing in thermodynamics in non-steady state flow regimes. Computational Fluid Dynamics software replaced me. But I only moved to program management, science and technology policy, and strategic planning when modern engineering ceased to provide psychic income — just a few days after slaving at a computer replaced real work.

Hobbies? Radio, RC aircraft, Flying, SCUBA, Sailing, Competition Riflery, Knife making, Cooking, Needlepoint…go figure.

Dick Stevenson

Dear All, Engineering (teaching etc) may make a comeback when we shift to being aware of the quality of life as the crucial parameter rather than the amount of money made. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Hear, hear, Dick,

And amply borne out by the amazing and enthusiastic comments above. There’s more to life than money, and the sooner we get back to that realisation, the better.

Kind regards



For me, the answer to the cynical question would be the same reason I spend the time answering friends and family on questions like this….because they asked and I like them. Maybe a seed is planted somewhere. I don’t even read, let alone respond, to the questions like this in the “appropriate” forums…it would just get lost in the chatter (how’s that for cynical? 😉


The car business is another industry where people seem to forget how much progress we’ve made. People love to complain that fuel economy hasn’t gone up in the past 30 years but the ignore everything else that has improved. The Ford Taurus was the car of the year in 1986 and was a gem at the time. It weighed 3000#, had a length of 188”, had a tiny engine, did 0-60 in about 10 seconds, and didn’t have air bags, anti lock brakes, a sunroof, a multi change CD player, 16 way seats, satellite radio, or any of the options now common on even the most basic car. The current Ford Taurus now weighs 4000# (1000 more), has a length of 202.9” (15” more), does 0-60 in just under 10 second (30% faster), has all those features that the 1986 model didn’t and gets slightly better gas mileage. Ford didn’t reinvent the wheel from 1986 to 2012 but the reinvented everything else attached to the wheel. I think this gets lost.

This also happens in the Aerospace industry. Helicopters (with the exception of something like the Sikorsky X2) haven’t changed mechanically in the past 30 years and they all go about the same speed but to say nothing changed would be wrong. Helicopters now carry more load and do it more efficiently. Overbuilt parts are being brought in line thanks to engineering software packages that can accurately model the parts. Avionics have increased to the point where helicopters can take off, fly, and land themselves, even in zero visibility (brown out conditions), something that was unheard of 30 years ago.

I think a lot of what’s going on in engineering is AMAZING things but they don’t grab the headlines or inspire the public. A slightly better car or aircraft every year can never been as inspiring as an entirely new type of product.

This is just an amazing amount of innovation going on but it’s not inspiring innovation. But even when you get something that’s truly innovative (Sikorsky X2), it doesn’t inspire the public like the latest episode of the Kardashians does.


As a holder of a Aeronautical Engineering degree (though I never practiced) and a professional pilot I can assure you that great strides have been made in safety, reliability, and efficiency in those 50 years.


Hi John,

Couldn’t agree with you more. There is actually such an incredibly ambitious and audacious project underway, one which can really fire the imagination and quite literally define the course of humanity into the future.

The 100 Year Starship (100yss) aims to send humans to another star within a century. The project is funded by the Pentagon and headed by Mae Jemison, who is an engineer, medical doctor and astronaut. She is a combination of exceptional talent and courage, being the first black woman to go into space and having worked as a doctor in Liberia and Sierra Leone. If anyone can get this off the ground, she can.

In this information age we are confronted with a cacophony of mostly BS which makes it difficult to discern genuine voices like that of Mae Jemison and once we do hear her the challenge becomes grasping the enormous implications of her project. It raises fundamental questions in everything from philosophy to rocketry.

Check it out on and spread the word.

So what’s this got to do with boating? Food for thought out there on a starlit night. She wants to go… there? Yeah…

Simon Wirth

Why a discussion like this on a specialized forum?
I think the answer to that isn’t to complicated.
I think to go cruising (or planning to go cruising one day in my case) you need to bee a dreamer.
To participate in an innovative engineering project you have to bee a dreamer too.
Today’s society learns early to go watch TV and don’t dream.
This may be cynical from someone just 3 years out of studying, but that’s the way the world presents itself to me.


Hi Simon

Another reason why a discussion of this nature is valuable on a sailing forum is that most of us who sail more than the average guy, and visit out of the way places are to a greater or lesser degree engineers – we have to be. If you can’t service it or fix it yourself when there’s no-one else to help, you probably won’t be able to keep going.

It’s also true that we depend on engineers who design and build much of the equipment we depend upon on a daily basis. And, as at times our lives may depend on that, perhaps we, of all people, should cover this and associated topics.

And you’re right about being dreamers – it’s absolutely essential to this life – good to know that you’re a dreamer, too.

Kindest regards