This article explains why it is important to remove the growing conception that engineering sciences can be treated as a commodity. It highlights that currently, non-engineers are making laws for engineers. These same people evaluate candidate’s statements on the issues and elect officials. An informed electorate—aware of the value of engineering for maintaining the bridges, safety of the cars, etc.—will demand that the public conversation supports and funds these issues. Until engineers’ community gets there, there will be a lack of support for major infrastructure and other long-term projects, budget attacks on funding for and support of research and development programs, and politicians who can ignore scientific facts and still get elected. If engineers’ community gets success in changing the public conversation, more engineers might be encouraged to run for public office. Scientific advisors within the State Department would get public attention and their opinions expressed in front page news articles. However, their efforts will bear only minimal fruit as long as the public conversation stays as it is now.
Engineering Workforce Development: Address the importance of removing the growing conception that engineering sciences can be treated as a commodity.
Sometimes when you are too close to a situation, you can’t easily step back and understand how other people see you. That is certainly true of engineers.
There is a growing concern among engineers that their services are increasingly becoming viewed as a commodity—that companies buy engineering sciences as they would oil or grain—that the specializations within the field have little value.
Is that society's impression of what we do? We in the profession can’t easily understand how anyone can get to that position. But if we better look at how others come to that opinion and look at how our actions may actually contribute to the situation, we may be able to help change public perception and actions towards us.
The attitude toward engineering is indeed an issue of perception—of public relations—not one of technology. And so in a sense it is an issue for which engineers are not usually trained.
“Commodity” implies a lack of specialization, a lack of uniqueness. For the engineering profession, that is reflected in a lack of appreciation for creativity and experience in the engineering sciences. Similarly, even those people who interact with engineering firms fail to appreciate the value of getting the right firm for the job or for potential students to recognize the role of the different engineering disciplines. Widespread acceptance of offshoring of services represents a significant manifestation of this commoditization.
There is also a perception of the nature of engineers as the ones that others shouldn’t try to understand. No wonder that we are concerned that engineering is being seen as a commodity. If as individuals we are seen as irrelevant to the general public, then so will engineering in general be regarded as less than a desirable profession worthy of public notice and investment.
Engineering as a profession and engineering services are taken for granted in society. We are responsible as practitioners for bringing this on ourselves. We created this environment by slowly and steadily doing our jobs without asking for public recognition or thanks. While it's not in our nature to boast, communicating our success is necessary in order to be recognized in American society.
Without that self-promotion, society defines us in its own way. Consequently, our diversity and innovations are not recognized, celebrated, or most important, understood. The consequences of that reality play out in a number of ways:
There is a lack of response to engineering success and sometimes even to failures.
There is a lack of engineering awareness in our educational system.
There is a serious lack of insight and of evidencebased decision-making by an informed electorate in our political system.
Engineers as a community must take control of altering this public perception.
Success or Failure—Ho Hum
Somehow we got caught between the two diverse aspects of an engineer, so memorably described by Herbert Hoover when he remarked, “Engineering is a great profession. … It elevates the standard of living and adds to the comforts of life. This is the engineer's high privilege.” Yet, he is also famous for noting how an engineer's greatest liability “is that his works are out in the open where all can see them.”
When mistakes are made, they too are out in the open. As Hoover put it, “The engineer simply cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned.”
While the public may be quick to condemn mistakes or celebrate success, what I find both fascinating and disturbing is how short-lived those discussions can be.
When the successes are celebrated, we don’t make sure enough is said about the scientific and engineering work behind that success. There is rarely a public discussion of the need for funding to build on a success or to train the next generation to maintain the tradition of success. Why is the end of the Space Shuttle program not a public call for innovators to define the next steps and educators to prepare the next generation to lead those steps?
An unexpected result is that the similar short-term focus and lack of attention is also applied to engineering failures. Engineers are trained to take failures as lessons learned for future action. This interpretation of failure is not shared by the public at large. If the country can’t rally behind infrastructure development even in the face of horrifyingly deadly bridge collapses, engineering has truly become an ignorable commodity.
Proper discourse following failures should rally public support and call for additional funding. In our public debate today, if the debate is focusing on your funding, you are an issue worthy of people's time. Our current state of being ignored is definitely a worse fate.
The brutal truth is that as professionals, we have to play the primary role in changing the public focus. Changing the Conversation, a report issued through the National Research Council, was seminal for engineering societies. It taught us that the words we utter affect how others perceive us.
As engineers we must band together across disciplines to change the public conversation. Experience is showing us, however, that dynamic change will require systemic change within the spheres of popular culture and education.
As engineers we already have a collective hero worship for Dean Kamen and the awe-inspiring FIRST organization that he has built. He will be remembered for making the most fundamental change in our profession in our lifetimes. His work inspired an actual rock star to support him. One my 9-year-old loves, no less— will.i.am, who brings his band with him to perform for the FIRST competition.
The sad thing is that even these pop-media messages are very slow to effect change. Take Tinkerbell's transformation to a mechanical engineer. Did you miss that? The new set of Tinkerbell movies brings her back to J.M. Barrie's original plan for her as a “tinkerer.” Talk about increasing diversity—every little girl from 5 to 9 years old is spellbound by a fairy who saves the day by using mechanical engineering! Even better—she fails first and has to learn to pick herself up, dust herself off (literally), accept her calling, and try again.
I’m in love with this transformation—but I have seen no marketing to capitalize on this aspect of her character. If this simple transformation is too much for society to grasp, then again the fault lies with us. We have to create the means for the public to embrace this.
Our conversation ends up back at education: how we approach science and math education, how we create the expectations for schools to celebrate engineering. There is much debate about the level of K-12 public education and out-of-school programs to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Many people argue on both sides as to whether engineering should be in the K-12 curriculum.
I’m not going to debate curriculum here, but I will argue for the value of a basic level of appreciation for engineering as a profession and a basic knowledge of engineering in the world around us. And that basic education leads us to an informed electorate, an electorate that can better weigh truths, facts, and options.
Look at the classes that students consider “easy” versus those that they consider “hard.” Math and science always end up in the hard column, while English and history are on the easy side. When that perception persists, only the students truly focused on science and engineering will continue to take those subjects.
What are the English and social studies teachers doing differently from the math and science teachers? First, they relate to daily life. They host debates on current political topics. Writing assignments allow the students to express themselves from their own point of view, with their own expression. Do we allow the same in math and science classes? No. Could we? Definitely.
Teachers are not the ones at fault over these comparisons. These differences in disciplines reflect the norms and public activities of the professional disciplines themselves. Writers and political scientists are continually writing with new modes of expression and new focal points. The pace of the current political system and global access to world events makes social studies as fast paced as the news stream.
The exciting thing is that many innovative people are writing STEM curricula to do just this and the curricular changes are making their way into the mainstream. They are bringing environmental science, climate change, and city planning into focus for students. But until the true educational drivers of standardized testing, school accountability, and parental pressure reward new innovative teaching, the practices in the classroom will not change.
Public awareness has a huge impact in these decisions. If local school board members have never been exposed to true inquiry-driven learning, they will not be supportive. If testing requirements continue to drive funding and school ratings, and those tests are increasingly multiple-choice, then we are not driving change.
Many students aspire to a career once they see a personal connection to that role—a connection to their goals and interests. If engineering settles into a rote series of step-by-step labs and formulas to memorize, without connections to curing disease, overcoming handicaps, or protecting the environment, how do we expect students to make such a personal connection? But we can’t even begin to define the engineering disciplines until we better publicly define engineering.
Education then reflects society's perception of engineering. Would correcting that perception really affect our lives and our profession? Yes, with major impacts for public discourse.
What is an informed electorate? My definition is a collection of voters who critically think about political issues, consider facts and evidence, then make a decision on which side to support.
Most people are not going to undertake such an evaluation without feeling comfortable with open inquiry, weighing of evidence, and insight into reading statistics that are so often in the news. While all schools should be teaching these skills, a person needs to have a baseline of knowledge in a topic to begin this process.
If most of the public has no idea what engineering entails, or what type of projects engineers may contribute to, how will they take the time to support engineering projects? They will be easily distracted to other issues.
Why is this relevant? Currently, non-engineers are making our laws, reading our bids for engineering services, and teaching our elementary children. These same people evaluate candidate's statements on the issues and elect officials. An informed electorate, aware of the value of engineering for maintaining the bridges we drive over, the levees that protect our homes, and the safety of the cars we drive, will demand that the public conversation supports and funds these issues.
Until we get there, there will continue to be a lack of support for major infrastructure and other long-term projects, budget attacks on funding for and support of research and development programs, and politicians who can ignore scientific facts and still get elected.
If we’re successful in changing the public conversation, we may actually see more engineers encouraged to run for public office. We may see a continual demand for our engineering fellows programs in state and federal legislatures. Scientific advisors within the State Department would get public attention and their opinions expressed in front page news articles. I give immense credit to those scientists and engineers who are serving the public today and continually pushing to bring engineering issues into the forefront. But their efforts will bear only minimal fruit as long as the public conversation stays as it is now.
Call to Action
Our message to the public, and most importantly to youth, is ours to craft. We need to ensure we are training the next generation to be risk takers, dynamic decision makers, and creative designers whose unique talents are appreciated—not taken as a commodity. As a profession we also need to show that we regularly partner with other professions; that our role is to complement and collaborate with artists, designers, lawyers, etc. to make the best products possible. Such connections drive business and innovation, and pull us from the sidelines to the mainstream.
Consider the following actions to join as a united profession to rebrand ourselves and reverse the commoditizing of the profession.
Be the face of engineering: Visit schools and afterschool clubs and tell your stories of why you choose your profession and who you are—“I love soccer.” “I read all the Harry Potter books.” “I was a Girl Scout.”
Pay attention to your language: Just as the engineering societies are doing, recognize your need to tie engineering to life's problems that you solve and people you help. “I work for an automotive supplier. Our antilock brakes save over 100 lives a day by avoiding collisions.”
Tell friends why you vote as you do: Know who supports public education, supports infrastructure projects, etc.
Tell adult friends what you do, too: Your neighbor may be contracting other engineers as commodities— you’ll make a difference in places you didn’t expect.
Treat the youth that you know as adults and teach them rational debate, inquiry, and a love for exploration: From a young age, my grandfather would engage me in debate, believing in me enough to challenge my thoughts and expect me to challenge his. He showed me how creative and innovative mechanical engineering is. Do the same for a potential next generation mechanical engineer you know.
Join me and we will not see this topic in the next crowdsourced issue of ME magazine.