Ask an Engineer - Are Business Classes Useful?

Aug 30, 2011

Viktor Asks:

Will a year's worth of classes in economics/business do me any good later in my work as an engineer?


Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

Yes! Business factors determine which engineering gets funded, so some understanding of the business world is essential to a fulfilling and lucrative engineering career

Regardless of your engineering specialization, the basics of the following non-engineering subjects will be useful.

  1. Engineering Economy
  2. Interpersonal Communications, Group Dynamics and Team Building
  3. Technical Writing and Presentation Skills
  4. History (yes, history – it’s all been seen before)
  5. Market Analysis
  6. Competitive Strategy
  7. Statistics and Risk Analysis
  8. Macroeconomics
  9. Contract Administration
  10. Project Management

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

 Chances are, it will help.  It sure won't hurt.  The business and management classes will probably more valuable than pure economics.

If you go into a small company, perhaps consulting, perhaps specalized products, you'll definitely want those skills.  Small companies really need people with broad backgrounds.

If you go into a medium sized or larger company and want to advance into a management or leadership position, it'll come in handy.  And if you get really into the management thing, it'll be a head start on your MBA.

If you're like me and don't want to go anywhere near management, it'll still help you understand the managers and speak to them in their own language.  I know my career would be better off if I could get along with my managers better.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

I think that a little bit of knowledge of both economics and business classes can be very helpful as an engineer. If you are in the corporate world, that information helps you to understand some of the confusing decisions made by the company.

Being a research engineer, I tend to use the info in those classes to make business cases to pursue technologies as well as to push designs into production.   There are a lot of engineers who would say going as far as an MBA is useful to become management, but I don't think that's necessary to be able to do engineering well (or to be a manager, for that matter).

Thomas - Software Consulting – Taiwan

It really depends who you are and how well you are doing in school. If you are top 1% of your class and will graduate with honors and want to try something extra, then go for it. If you are in the mid to lower part of your class and don’t have any real skills yet then I would advise against taking a year of business. Soon you will enter the harsh post-recession workforce where competition is even more fierce and many entry level positions are being sent to Asia where they can be done by senior engineers for a fraction of the cost.

The overlap between business and engineering is shallow. You are either on the business side selling and managing engineers or on the technical side focused solely on creating/managing the product. There are engineers in the business side, but they lean toward the older and more experienced who help bridge the gap between boardroom and assembly line.

As a hobby, business is incredibly interesting and quite fun for those of an engineering background. Engineers have a leg up on even most MBAs because the training for engineering covers math at a much higher level than most business folks. Since you will easily be able to wrap your head around most financial math, with a little bit of dedication you can turn your interest into a nice secondary income stream and be at an advantage should you decide to open your own engineering office.  

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

 I beleive that the short answer is: "Yes." 

The reason is twofold: 1) You will be able to give your clients value by analyzing the problem from their point of view, and being able to talk in a language they understand. In my experience, I spend more time writing emails, site reports, analysis, and feasibilities then actually doing real engineering work. 2) If you ever decide to branch off on our own, you will be able to take the first steps towards effectively running your own office.

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

The only business/economics classes I've taken were a regular part of the curriculum. I'm not sure how much info there would be in a full year worth of such classes, so I can't comment on that exactly.

What I do know is that the classes I've taken haven't helped me so far, but that may be because I'm on the bottom of the ladder at this point in my career. However, if you want to move up to manager, it will definitely benefit you to have some knowledge of/feeling for the way businesses work and make money. It can be a lot more complicated than it appears to the casual observer (i.e. 1. build stuff 2. sell stuff 3. profit!).

In the end though, it will all depend on where you want to go as an engineer. Your career path is mostly up to yourself. If you want a career path that leads you to places where you'll benefit from these classes, they will benefit you. If you don't have a plan like that, they may benefit you when you get higher up the ladder.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

Financial calculation has ended up being a HUGE part of my current role.

As an engineer, eventually you will run into someone holding purse-strings that you need to convince. Maybe you’re a plant engineer who needs to convince the CFO to invest in an equipment upgrade. Maybe you’re a business owner convincing an investor, or trying to get a loan. Maybe you’ll be the one who makes the decision, but the options that you are presented are in financial terms. In any of these cases, being fluent in “financial language” will serve you well. You will be able to compare, convey, and interpret financial results more easily.

There are many other things to consider regarding a full extended year of business classes but fear not: there is DEFINITELY an application in engineering.

 Bruno - Polytechnique -  Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

Understanding the business is indeed a very important part of en engineer's job. However, if you wish to be an engineer very focused on the technical aspect of the job, like a software architect for a software engineer like me, you won't be needing that much of a background: basic economics and business class will be more than enough. And in that case, the more technical background you have, the better.
Nonetheless, it is very possible that as an engineer, you get to have a job more focused on business or economics, like a project manager or any other higher administrative position. In that case, I would be tempted to tell you that such a background would help, but I'd say it's the other way around: having that background will help you actually achieve this position.

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

 The answer largely depends on the type of engineer that you're going to become. From what I've seen, and remember my point of view is limited to field engineering in the oilfield, it's not largely useful. The one class that I took that was business related was intro to microeconomics, and I haven't used the information from it at all.

It all depends on what you're planning on doing after college. That's a mistake non-engineers make on the topic of engineering, they think we all do the same thing, so it all depends on what you're planning on doing.

I know you asked about economics and business, but as a side point, taking a class in Lean Manufacturing could be useful as well, since a lot of companies seem to be heading that way. It's an Industrial Engineering course, but it provides a decent bridge between business and engineering. I enjoyed the class, and it works to help boost your resume, especially in the companies adopting the strategies.

Kimberly – Software Engineer – Washington, USA

It depends on what your career goals are as an engineer.  Business and economics savvy can be helpful if you want to be a manager.  Particularly useful will be the application side of economics (the theory of it might not be quite as applicable, but if you're interested in it then by all means take it if you have the time! :))

An understanding of economics/business comes in handy if you're working for a financial organization, nonprofit, or a government agency.  Moreover, if you want to eventually work for yourself -- such as founding your own startup -- knowing how to run a business and understanding some key business concepts) can help you hit the ground running.

Having said the above, if you're just looking for a working knowledge of business/economics, I'm not sure that a full year of classes is necessary -- consider taking some credits on an elective basis and go from there.  (Also, if you commit to a full year of classes, it's worth considering whether you want to go the distance and pursue a minor in that subject -- then you'llhave something extra to put on your transcript to show for your extra work.) 


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Do you wish you took more econ courses? Or do you think you took too many? Let us know what you think in the comments!