ASCE Conference on the future of engineering education presentation in April 1990
Dennis Polhill, P.E.
James C. Pequette, Ph.D.
Dennis Polhill is a Consultant to Pavement Management Systems, Inc.; Member of APWA’s National Committee on Graduate Public Works Education and President of the Graduate Public Works Alumni Association at the University of Pittsburgh.
James C. Pequette, is a Regional Manager for Pavement Management Systems, Inc.; President-Elect of the Colorado APWA Chapter; Chairman of the Colorado Chapter Professional Development Committee and former University Dean.
Engineering through history has gone through many stages of metamorphosis. Significant advances in the profession occurred in the mid 1800’s when a rebellious new nation, unrestricted by tradition, invented engineering as a specialized field of study within the university structure. A hundred years later another major step to improve the profession evolved with the advent of state licensing requirements.
The stage has been appropriately set. Before us lies the opportunity during the 21st century to evolve engineering into a true profession. The achievements of the profession have been phenomenal, but we must recommit to excellence and look forward into the future. It is time that we reevaluate and rethink the charge of the profession, the needs of society and of our practicing professiona1s, and the structure of the registration and educational process. By fine tuning our approach at creating professionals we can evolve engineering into a true profession and adequately respond to the demands that the future will impose upon engineers.
The growth and development of the United States was guided by some very wise men who achieved enormously powerful long term goals through the exercise of their profound wisdom. National policies of the 1800’s that helped America evolve to be the World power that it is today include: (1) westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, (2) an open door immigration policy unprecedented in World history that yielded multiple compounding of our population, (3) the Homestead Act that motivates the work ethic and innovation of individuals to new heights, (4) the enormous federal subsidy to railroad development, (5) expediting the initiation of a large army of technical experts by breaking with the traditional concept of liberal arts in university education and creating for the first time university level “engineering” education at land grant universities.
All five goals were exceedingly successful. Number 5, the creation of university level “engineering” education was the first step in the evolution of the engineering profession.
It took the better part of a century for the engineering programs to evolve and to come firmly institutionalized. Step No. 1 in the development of the engineering profession was complete.
Step No. 2 was the development of professional licensing. It was recognized that the health, safety and welfare of the general public deserved protection from those who would practice engineering without regard to their level of technical competence. Each State developed its own approach to licensing and over time the variations in licensing requirements from State to State diminished. Some work remains, but step No. 2 is effectively in place.
It is time to review our achievements and make minor modifications in both engineering education and licensing, where appropriate, to position ourselves to evolve into a full fledged “profession” during the 21st Century.
Engineering has been defined by the U.S. Engineers Council for Professional Development as “the creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination, or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property.”
More important than the Engineers Council for Professional Development definition is the general perception of the people of America. Engineers are aware of this perception. We regularly complain about the perceived status of engineers in relation to other groups such as attorneys and physicians. We know too well how society values our contributions. The parameters of salary, career options, political representation and input are a sad and unmistakable tribute to the status of engineering as a profession.
Engineers are generally not perceived as professionals and the trend suggests that our status is continuing to diminish. Salaries since the early 1970’s have not kept pace with inflation. Engineering enrollments at universities have dropped. The number of engineers in leadership positions continues to drop both in the public sector and the private sector. In Japan, corporate leaders tend to have backgrounds in engineering. In the U.S., corporate leaders tend to be marketers and/or financial experts. Between 1970 and 1980 there was an 11% drop in the number of engineers holding municipal public works director positions. At the beginning of the century most city managers were engineers. Today it is rare to find an engineer-city manager.
America’s infrastructure crisis is a premier example of our engineering community’s failure to provide the technological leadership needed. In a report published by the National Academy of Public Administration, The Next Generation in the Management of Public Works: Getting Some of it Together, the perception of public works managers is openly stated: “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.”
Technological Implementer vs. Technological Advocate
The mainstream practitioner engineer of today is a technological implementer. Someone decides that a bridge is to be built or some other technical problem is to be solved. Then the technological implementer accepts the “givens” provided and solves the problem to the best of his ability within the defined limits. Probably about 90% of practicing engineers are technological implementers.
About 10% of practicing engineers are or have the capacity to become technological advocates. America’s economy is in desperate need of technological advocates. As reflected by salaries (supply and demand) the need for technological implementers and general salary levels has been on the decline since the early 1970’s. There has been an oversupply of implementers and an under supply of advocators. Salary trends adjusted for inflation are in direct proportion to demand.
During the next 20 years, all indications are that implementers will be in undersupply. Thus, demand and, in turn, salaries can be expected to reverse. However, this does not solve (and may in fact augment) our national shortage of technological advocates because most individuals will be attracted to traditional engineering curricula. Engineering programs must change to offset this probable trend.
The upside potential for engineers who carry management, leadership and communication skills is exciting. The universities that decide to address this need are destined to a future of prestige and national recognition.
For the engineering community to become the technological leaders and advocates of our society, we need to make immediate but gradual changes in our approach to engineering education and registration. In addition to the current emphasis on technical skills, equal emphasis is needed in the areas of leadership, communications, creativity, risk taking and entrepreneurship. Some would argue that some of these are personality traits and are not teachable. If so, they must be incorporated in our student recruiting and screening efforts. It is the authors’ collective opinion that the educational process can be effective at enhancing and encouraging skills in these areas.
Action is required on 3 fronts:
· continuing education
· engineering specialty registration
· basic engineering education
Continuing education is an excellent example of the lack of leadership in the engineering community in America. We acknowledge that our university training is obsolete within 5 years, but do little to stay current with changing technology. In fact, by our actions that resist continuing education we are contributing to the problem. Continuing education is a necessary condition for professional and technical competence and, therefore, must be required.
Engineering Specialty Registration
In systems analysis courses it is taught that “to recognize the broadest scope of alternatives the system problem must be defined in its most basic terms.”
The issue of specialty engineering registration is such an issue. In one context it seems appropriate. In another context it does not seem appropriate. When the universe of professional engineers is divided into two groups (technology implementers, and technology advocators) the issue is less clouded.
Among technological implementers, the benefits to the profession, to society and to the individual of specialty registration are clear. Engineers can focus on the technical specialty of their choice and learn it more completely. There will be more incentive and it will be easier for engineers to maintain a knowledge base that is up-to-date and current. Those engineers within a specialty who create the most value will be more widely known, sought after, and compensated.
For technological advocators, specialty registration is not appropriate. To an increasing extent technological advocators are not even engineers. The trend is away from engineers. If engineers are to assume these roles in the future, we must prove ourselves capable. The most, basic characteristic of a technological advocate is a quantitative thinker who will aggressively pursue the implementation of technology.
Basic Engineering Education
John Naisbitt, author of best seller Megatrends said, “Education in America must be reinvented rather than simply improved.” Naisbitt is advising us to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve.
The extent and intensity of engineering curricula has been debated. It is time to decide to act. To become a profession, basic engineering education must be changed to a two step process. Step one is a four year (120 sem. hr.) general engineering degree. The curriculum would provide basic engineering education in all of the sciences, computers, mechanics, etc., along with a broader scope of liberal arts type courses. The students’ exposure to various technical specialties would be limited to introductory courses that introduce the various engineering technical specialties and provide enough information to assist the student with a choice of engineering specialties. Some have suggested that a modified liberal arts degree would better serve the purpose.
Step two is a two year professional degree in a technical specialty selected by the student, i.e., structures, soils, transportation, surveying, management, public works, etc.
The result of this program would be that probably twice as many people would go through the general engineering program. About one quarter of the graduates would go on to various technical specialty masters programs. Probably one quarter would stop after the B.S. degree and become engineering technicians. About one quarter would pursue various types of management training, e.g., MBS, MPA, MPW, etc., and the final one quarter would complete their B.S. degree, and go into unrelated fields, e.g., banking, real estate, business. Obviously, some modification of licensing is needed. All-in-all, a world with more engineers would have to be a better world.
More importantly, engineering will evolve to be a true profession and engineers will benefit.
The challenge is to decide. Once we decide to become a profession the problem reduces itself to one of implementation. Implementation is something that engineers do very well; deciding is something that we do not do very well. A wise mentor once gave advice on goal setting. He said that a goal to have items of materialistic value was superficial and doomed to ultimate failure; but a goal to be something that contributes value to others will bring with it materialistic rewards.
Engineers desire to be more highly compensated and consulted. Similarly, America seriously needs technological leadership. I submit that we, the engineering community, should commit ourselves to the technological leaders and agents of technological advocacy of the next century.
It is our challenge to decide and to take action immediately. We must implement the action plan presented to become a true profession.