A new age of numbers

25 April 2008

Our industry depends on precise mathematics to meet many of its special challenges. To safely transport, lift and erect immense objects requires considerable engineering expertise – from the factory where the precisely calibrated equipment is manufactured to the highways and the jobsites where this equipment and the professionals using it are put to the test.

As the industry takes on increasingly difficult jobs and searches for more efficient methods of completing more mundane tasks, the need for mathematics can only be expected to grow stronger. At the same time, other industries also are embracing math.

Certainly, prospects are bright for budding mathematicians. Consider one of the world's newest billionaires, Sergey Brin. Having received a bachelor of science degree with honors in mathematics and computer science from the University of Maryland at College Park, in the US, this 32-year-old went on to develop the search engine behind Google, the company he co-founded. Today, he is worth an estimated $11 billion.

Brin is not alone. Former Stanford University classmates Jerry Yang and David Filo, who were in their 20s when they founded Yahoo in 1995, are each worth about $3 billion.

Such success stories surely will entice some of the world's most intelligent students to consider careers that rely on a knowledge of mathematics. “There has never been a better time to be a mathematician,” says James Schatz, chief of the mathematics research group at the National Security Agency (NSA), in the 23 January cover story in BusinessWeek magazine.

But to land the best brains, the NSA must compete with free-spending web giants such as Google and Yahoo. For now, one of the ways NSA manages to attract graduating math and engineering students is by offering jobs with more predictable hours, a less frantic pace and more job security than internet companies, many of which have crashed in recent years.

That also might be a solid strategy for companies in our industry. In addition, NSA appeals to the young mathematicians' need to make a difference in society, reminding them they will be helping to protect the nation against terrorist attacks.

In similar fashion, SC&RA member companies can easily point to important, high-profile jobs made possible by math. Looking for examples of math-driven miracles that exemplify our industry? A great place to start is SC&RA's Annual Rigging and Hauling Jobs of the Year.

If your children are interested in this industry and are looking for career advice, encourage them to sign up for advanced math courses. Remember, the SC&R Foundation awards one-year scholarships for students preparing for careers related to transportation or construction management. These attractive scholarships are limited to children, grandchildren, stepchildren and spouses of SC&RA member company employees around the world.

Ultimately, the supply of able engineers should grow as more and more students pursue math-related degrees. The Association and its member companies should make every effort to ensure that a reasonable share of these students embark on rewarding careers in our industry.

We stand to benefit even if they take different career paths. The prospective employees we lose to a company like Google are likely to come up with even better ways for us to learn and communicate.

Moreover, much of the wealth being created already is being redirected to philanthropic initiatives designed to make the world a better place. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and wife Melinda have endowed a foundation with more than $27 billion. Much of this money goes to the Global Health programme, which works to close the gap between rich and poor countries by encouraging new research and supporting healthcare organizations that reach people most in need. Another noteworthy component is its education programme, which seeks to ensure that all students in the United States graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship.

Bill and Melinda Gates take a hands-on approach to their foundation, applying many of the same mathematical concepts that made Microsoft so successful. It all adds up: the world is moving into a new golden age of numbers.

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