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Before you set foot out the door each morning, numerous teams of engineers have shaped your day. The evidence of their contributions to your quality of life are manifold: the secure structure of your building, the underground system carrying fresh water to your faucet, the formula of your toothpaste or cosmetics, your home’s heating or air-conditioning unit, and the coffee machine brewing your favorite cup of joe were each carefully designed and created by an engineer.

Engineers are innovators who touch all aspects of our society and work across all industries. Now, more than ever, they are competing for roles in the global marketplace. This means public and private sector employers are looking for candidates who possess more than the keen math and science skills, curiosity for how things work, and passion for discovering practical solutions to everyday problems traditionally associated with such careers: they are now seeking global engineers who are ready and able to participate in diverse, multinational teams to improve living conditions for people around the world. Have you got the skills they’re looking for?

For those preparing to join the ranks of global engineers designing our future, the command of a second language is an essential building block for career growth. Engineers who speak more than one language communicate more effectively with peers and clients both at home and abroad, navigate diverse work environments with greater ease, and demonstrate a better understanding of the underlying cultural aspects of their projects.

A Call for Global Engineers

Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders, sets forth the problem:

“We know how to build things. It’s the non-engineering part that’s the challenge. How do we train people to be leaders, and to deal with cultures that don’t speak the same language, or that have different value systems? How do we teach student engineers to deal with issues of anthropology, sociology, language, conflict?”1

The National Research Council and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science has urged those thinking about a career in engineering to begin language study early and to consider it a lifelong pursuit. They identify four sets of skills essential to the global engineer:

“(1) language and cultural skills, (2) teamwork and group dynamics skills, (3) knowledge of the business and engineering cultures of counterpart countries, and (4) knowledge of international variations in engineering education and practice.”2

The American Society for Engineering Education makes complementary claims. Their Corporate Member Council’s Special Interest Group for International Engineering Education includes “fluency in at least two languages” in a revised list of 20 essential attributes of the global engineer and asserts: “in this evolving world, a new kind of engineer is needed, one who can think broadly across disciplines and consider the human dimensions that are at the heart of every design challenge.”3

By learning languages, we gain more than new grammar and vocabulary: we center in on those “human dimensions,” strengthening our ability to communicate broadly and opening our minds to how people of other cultures conduct business or approach complex projects. In this way, language skills enhance all aspects of being a responsible, and successful, global engineer.

Engineering Roles Requiring Language Skills

The principles of math and science at the foundation of engineering may be universal and constant, but the composition of the teams employing them is rapidly changing.

As globalization has permitted the development, manufacturing, and marketing of new products to spread across greater distances without sacrificing valuable time, engineering teams have followed each stage of the creation process across international borders. Bilingual engineers are regularly sent abroad to help manage corporate partnerships and multinational projects. Domestically, bilingual engineers are an asset to American companies seeking to attract high-quality foreign-born experts to work for them in the United States. In fact, 33 percent of all U.S. residents with bachelor’s degrees in engineering fields are foreign-born.4

When collaborating with group of a highly diverse colleagues, global engineers use language skills and a heightened sense of cultural awareness to understand the values and expectations of each team member. By better understanding other cultures, team leaders can be responsive to cultural perceptions which sometimes delay smooth cooperation—such as how different societies envision short- and long-term goals, team motivation, work-life balance, and interactions with vendors or other parties.

Engineers perform meaningful work in response to specific problems. The American Society of Civil Engineers asserts that the “future strength of the civil engineering profession will come from an engineering workforce that mirrors the population it serves.”5 A diverse workforce who genuinely understands the problems faced by a specific community, and who is able to discuss those problems with the community, will better understand what is needed to solve them.

So what type of global engineer will you be? A few possibilities could include:

Mechanical Engineer

Mechanical engineers use their knowledge of thermodynamics and movement to develop new ideas into actual products found in the marketplace. They are present at every stage of the creation process—from the moment a problem is identified through the research, design, construction, and testing of a device—and the domains open to a mechanical engineer are practically endless. Among other roles, they create engines and control systems for spacecraft, aircraft, and land vehicles; design microsensors, printers, and drives; and imagine new ways to harness energy through wind turbines and solar collectors.

Chemical Engineer

Like mechanical engineers, chemical engineers work across multiple industries, including microelectronics, biotechnology, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food processing, and environmental safety, just to name a few. They apply a strong understanding of math, physics, biology, and chemistry to analyze and process chemicals and other materials for the production or treatment of food, drugs, and other products.

Civil Engineer

Civil engineers design, build, and maintain large-scale infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges and tunnels, dams, high-rise buildings, and water and sewer systems. Some specialty functions within the discipline include structural engineers, transportation engineers, and sanitary engineers.

Electrical or Electronics Engineer

Electrical engineers design, build, and test devices that use or produce electricity, such as motors, lasers, power generators, and radar and navigation systems. In a closely related role, electronics engineers focus specifically on the design and creation of electronic devices, such as telecommunications and GPS tools, among others.

Biomedical Engineer

Biomedical engineers work in hospitals, research facilities, and within government agencies, among other institutions, to develop and test devices used by the healthcare industry. They are responsible for advancements in technologies such as prosthetic joints, artificial organs, pacemakers, and stem cell research. Many choose to earn an M.D. in addition to their engineering degree in order to work directly with patients, bridging the gap between engineering and healthcare services.

For information on the value of language skills in other health careers, see our Sector Profile: Health Care.

How Do I Get Started?

To begin your career in engineering, you will need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in your chosen specialization or a closely related field. Some engineers are also required to hold a certified license, especially if they are selling products to the public.

Recognizing the impact of globalization on the field, colleges and universities now offer a wide variety of ways for engineering students to incorporate cultural and language immersion experiences into their undergraduate studies. Some options include, but are not limited to, global minors and concentrations within the school of engineering, international certificates, overseas fellowships, research collaborations, and study abroad opportunities with university partners.

Which languages will be most helpful to you as a future engineer? While some sources suggest German or Japanese, choosing any language and corresponding culture that interest you deeply will serve you well. You never know who you will collaborate with across the span of your engineering career, even if you plan to work domestically. More than four million of the current U.S. residents holding science and engineering bachelor’s degrees were born in another country, hailing from Asia (57 percent), Europe (18 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (16 percent), Africa (five percent), Northern America (three percent), and Oceania (less than one percent).6 Just imagine the range of languages they speak!

All that’s left is to select the best program for you. Here are some ways to begin:

Additional Resources

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