Colorado Engineering Magazine, August 1989
by Dennis Polhill, P.E.
I am concerned by the trends that I observe in engineering and in America. American business is suffering because of lack of technological leadership. In an article by Bernard M. Gordon in the November, 1987, issue of Electronic Business titled “Do We Really Want Engineering Leadership?” he opens:
“American business is now paying the price — in lower productivity and markets lost to foreign competition —for our failure to educate sufficient engineering leaders. Instead of training narrowly focused specialists and titled technicians capable only of copying existing technologies, we must educate leaders — individuals with the breadth of vision, intellectual depth, and competence to invent and apply the advanced technologies which will be the basis of our future prosperity and societal progress.”
In a report published by the National Academy of Public Administration, “The Next Generation in the Management of Public Works,” Author Royce Hanson makes similar accusations about government engineers:
“The current system of public works management has been likened to sending a drunk down an alley. He somehow reaches the other end, but not in a very efficient or graceful manner. The nation’s infrastructure system has progressed on an uncertain course. Management doctrine has been developed in an ad hoc fashion, but is now increasingly coming unstuck from its traditional base. It is still a little light headed.
Reorienting public works managers, especially, to think about management ahead of construction will involve a considerable cultural shift. Engineers and public works directors think of themselves as builders, not maintainers and managers. They live capital-intensive fantasy lives. Replacing the “edifice complex” with a passion for management will require major changes in the education and acculturation of those who lead public works organizations and those who educate them.”
Although the engineering profession has major problems, the bigger picture suggests that we have even bigger problems. Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, management professor and management consultant, openly criticizes American management:
“The matrix organization and our habit of excuse-making have done more to damage the American economy than Arab oil, the Japanese, or any of the other commonly used excuses for not producing results. No one with five bosses and one fourteenth of a responsibility will produce. America needs leadership and accountability in management. The problem is size. As soon as an organization exceeds five employees, bureaucracy begins to overshadow our entrepreneurial approach. Small single-purpose teams led by a mono-maniac outperform large complex bureaucratic organizations.”
Conclusion — America needs a new generation of leaders. Technological leaders are needed, engineers need to become leaders and to want to improve their status. Thus, an opportunity exists for engineers to step forward, to take charge and to fill the gap.
As a measure of our willingness to step forward, on February 24, 1989, Governor Romer spoke at the engineers’ dinner. In his address he appealed to the engineering community for help to deal with the pressing technological issues inhibiting Colorado’s economic recovery. What have you done to respond to the Governor’s challenge?
In Megratrends, author John Naisbitt lists Colorado as a “bell weather” state that is looked to for direction and innovation by the rest of the nation. The fact that Colorado is the “melting pot” brings together a meshing and mingling of ideas, philosophies, and traditions. This is a source for innovative problem solving approaches. Colorado has demonstrated this ability in the past and can continue to serve this leadership function if we so choose.
I suggest that because of Colorado’s unique “bell weather” role, engineers in Colorado, and more specifically PEC, have a uniqueopportunity to have far-reaching and significant influence on professional trends in engineering across America. Given the opportunity to have far-reaching impacts, what things might we consider to truly make engineering a profession? Below, I present a series of issues and conclusions.
1. P.E. Licensing: Should not be a function performed by government. The regulation is a government responsibility. Thus, government must establish the regulation and monitor enforcement. However, the function of performing the activities of licensing, policing, etc. are better performed by an entity with a vested interest in the function.
2. Continuing Education: Is essential to maintaining technical competence and should be required. Competence of the individual is not something to be judged by the individual and enforced upon himself. It is in the interest of the profession to insure that practitioners are competent. Continuing education must be “mandatory.”
3. Engineers’ Involvement in Politics: Yes, if some of us choose to ascend to fill the leadership void, it is inevitable that we will become increasingly involved in politics in many ways.
4. Engineers’ Salaries: It is appropriate that salaries and fees (for consultants) decline in accordance with the free enterprise principal of supply and demand. If/When engineers fill the leadership gap, demand and salary for these individuals will increase appropriately. It is both an individual choice, a corporate choice, and a collective choice.
5. Role of PEC: A coherent reason for PEC (and NSPE) to exist is lacking. PEC should become the contracting agency with the State of Colorado for licensing, policing, and other related functions.
6. Local Issues: PEC is missing an opportunity to substantially increase both its member support base and political influence. PEC should decentralize by increasing the number of chapters and reducing chapter size.
7. Become a Profession: The 1800s offered the invention of engineering education. The 1900s evolved a consistent licensing structure. It is time to prepare for the 2000s when engineering, hopefully, will decide to become a profession.
8. Engineering Education: Basic B.S. degree requirements should be reduced to attract more students and to compete with liberal arts programs. A 120 semester hour program is advocated.
9. Professional Education: This is a 2 year technical specialty masters program. A professional degree program similar to doctors and lawyers.
10. EIT Designation: This is an insult to the recipient and to the engineering profession. It should be changed. Call it P.E. I; then the principals and practices designation would become P.E. II.
11. P.E. Designation: Is received within an area of technical specialization after receipt of the professional degree.
12. Definition of Engineer: Should be redefined more broadly to include newly developing technical specialties. The new definition should include some reference to innovation and creative application of scientific principals. Some individuals practicing in areas such as computers, biology. etc. should be considered engineers.
13. Technical Leadership: Although engineers do not have a monopoly on the quantitative thinking process, advocates of technical policy should have technical training. However, this role is increasingly being filled by non-engineers.
14. P.E. Exam: Automate and streamline the P.E. exam process by adopting a procedure similar to what is used by other professional groups. It is typical for the exam to be computerized, an appropriate number of questions are selected randomly, grading is instantaneous, and scheduling is at the convenience of the candidate once he has met admission requirements. Automating the exam process opens the door of opportunity to delegate the exam function to companies that specialize in improving this service at locations reasonably convenient to the candidate.
America needs its engineers to assume leadership roles as advocates of technical policy. We in Colorado have a unique opportunity to set the tone and the pace for the nation. It is your duty to consider the issues presented and to respond by taking positive action on those that are important to you personally.
Dennis Polhill, P.E., has been active in PEC for ten years. In 1983-84, he served as president of the Jefferson Chapter. Polhill is active in a variety of professional organizations and has been the recipient of national awards for service. He is a registered professional engineer in 12 states and has two B.S. and two M.S. degrees. Prior to the establishment of his own consulting business eight years ago, he had ten years of experience in engineering in government. He is an outspoken advocate on behalf of issues important to the engineering profession.