Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brain drain: engineers shun defense industry

Guess where they're headed instead:

NYTimes: At M.I.T., a 2007 survey showed that 28.7 percent of undergraduates were headed for work in finance, 13.7 in management consulting and just 7.5 percent in aerospace and defense. The top 10 employers included McKinsey, Google, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bain, JPMorgan and Oracle — but not a single military contractor or government office.

OK, could be worse. At Harvard the reported fraction heading into finance is 50%! Pity the public university kids who don't know what proprietary trading is and don't have Goldman et al. recruiting aggressively on campus.

Here is what old school investors like Paul Steinhardt and Charlie Munger have to say about it.

This is what I heard coming out of the gym last time I was at Caltech:

Undergrad 1: Yeah, they emailed me the test. I guess it's honor code.

Undergrad 2: But it's a hedge fund, right? Is there an honor code?

Undergrad 1: Hmmm.... good point.


stochastix said...

I don't have any exact figures, but I know that almost all of Caltech's fresh Applied Math PhD's land a job in Finance. Moreover, whenever there's that job fair (or whatever they call it) at Caltech, the big aerospace companies attending it (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon) get no attention whatsover. Techers flock to Google, McKinsey, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley start ups.

I think they're smart. Who'd want to work for a big aerospace corporation with its stupid cubicles and endless bureaucracy?

Steve, have you read Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"? Sadly (or not), the same signs of decline are now vivid in today's America.

steve said...

Re: Decline and Fall...

You've noticed one of the drums I've been regularly beating around here ;-) Most readers are probably sick of it (they get it and agree with the point), but somehow I can't help continuing to collect evidence...


Anonymous said...

Why is it a bad thing that people aren't going into government or defense? (Especially nowadays, when defense means spying on Americans and torturing Afghani goatherds?) Government salaries are not at all competitive.

stochastix said...


Thanks for digging up that older post.

It's more than understandable that an average MIT graduate opts for the highest-paying jobs. However, seeing that so many young graduates embrace careers in finance and consulting reveals something worrying about today's America: no one seems to want to create new things. Money seems to be the only value.

Unfortunately, most people need to work for a living so I am not going to be foolish to the point of saying that money does not matter. It does! Still, the joys of creating something new, of starting a new company, of owning one's destiny seem to be absent in today's youth.

A country's destiny is NOT to have an empire, but to have memories. History corroborates this statement.

If all the smart kids go work in investment banking, trading, or consulting, then I wonder how the not-so-smart kids working in companies who actually produce something will be able to compete in a global market. Being a well-fed parasite is great fun, but once the host runs out of blood, the parasite dies too.

And to use an old cliché, I blame it on TV. Smart kids are portrayed as "geeks", i.e., losers no one cares about and who will never get laid. It's always the jock who gets the girls, the guy who will become a lawyer or trader. The movie "Top Gun" (1986) was sponsored by the U.S. Navy because they needed more pilots in case the Cold War turned hot. I think a sort of "geek is cool" campaign would help too. I am not kidding.

gs said...

The up-or-out career tracks at all levels of the officer corps pressure military program managers to report success.

To form a guesstimate of political interference with military programs, consider how Congressional reps scream when the Pentagon proposes to close a base on their turf.

The defense business has been extremely cyclical. Contractors try to grab as much as they can, any way they can without getting caught, while the grabbing is good.

The NYT mentioned the bureaucratic culture of the defense industry.

Until the people on top change the system, the new grads who avoid the military-industrial complex are making the correct decision.

David said...

I am currently working hard to exit the defense industry.

Max said...

The aerospace and defense industries have a bad reputation for treating engineers as consumables.

FC said...


I doubt the military has ever been short of pilots. I know that today it has many more qualified pilots than it has jobs for them.

M. Simon said...

I don't think the system is so bad. Only those who really want to be engineers become engineers.

And then there is this problem: if 100,000 engineers (a hypothetical) can serve a population of 50 million. About 150,000 engineers can serve a population of 500 million. Thus a surplus of supply over demand.

I have a few more thoughts about Draining Brains.

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