The snobs are gone, but so is the prestige

Feb. 19, 2004
In the 1940s, the typical child in a middle-class home could not realistically plan on any career requiring a college education. However, there was a loophole that could boost children of the middle class into the upper middle class, and that was getting a job in an office.
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Khol editorials

An office job was a big jump in social status because there was a lot of class-consciousness at the time. If you worked in an office, you generally were treated with respect and weren't routinely bawled out by the boss or laid off with every downturn like workers in the factory.

But there was something even better than just getting a job in an office, and that was to become a draftsman. It was a job held mostly by men, and it was a career path by which boys who ordinarily would become mechanics or assembly-line workers became, instead, professional people. Drafting also was the first rung on the ladder to becoming an engineer. Many engineers in this era started as draftsmen and worked their way into engineering without ever setting foot in a college.

In junior-high school at age 13, I was able to take a class in mechanical drawing, and I loved it. I knew immediately I wanted to be a draftsman. Also, my parents told me that if I did well in math, I might get into engineering school, though at the time a dream that grandiose was a bit presumptuous. When I enrolled in college in the 1950s, an engineering degree was a ticket giving blue-collar kids entree into a prestigious profession.

Four years later I had an engineering degree and immediately stepped into a job at an aircraft company where even new graduates were treated as a privileged class. At the time, there was an unwritten dress code for engineers requiring us to show up for work in suits and neckties. We didn't mind, however, because a necktie was a status item. It marked us as being a cut above the hourly workers in the plant. Foremen in the factory had the same dress code, except they wore a shop coat over their dress shirt and tie. The way people dressed pretty much indicated what position they held in the company.

Today, America's corporations are much more relaxed. Neckties are long gone. At the same time, management's focus on quarterly profits and pressures from Wall Street have made the workplace a much more brutal place, even for engineers. Management now often views engineering as an overhead best outsourced or even dispensed with entirely.

If you look deeply enough for the source of the problem, you find we are all to blame. More and more, we flock to Wal-Mart and other stores of that ilk in a cultural and economic race to the bottom. The public relentlessly demands cheaper and cheaper products, and this has driven many manufacturers to the wall. There simply is less room in corporate budgets for decent engineering, an appreciation of which requires an attention span you don't find in most corporate management.

This situation has destroyed a lot of the self-esteem that was part of being an engineer. One way you can tell this is by how engineers dress on the job. Except for Dilbert, who still wears a necktie, engineers are ardent proponents of dressing down. But this might be sending the wrong message to management. If your boss thinks you are just a pair of hands easily replaced, your casual dress might reinforce his low opinion of you.

Obviously, the notions of hierarchy and class that engineers had years ago were a form of snobbery. But they conformed to societal norms of the time. And there is no question our feelings of superiority, no matter how snobbish, helped imbue the engineering profession with an aura of prestige and dignity you simply don't find today.

So where are we headed? Despite the fall-off in prestige, engineering is still the best educational foundation for a broad range of career options. When you talk with nontechnical people, it is almost comical to see how bewildered they are by today's technology. They seem to think the tooth fairy is somehow responsible for a lot of it. Engineering, in contrast, provides a grasp of the physical world unmatched by few other academic disciplines. As a basis for incisive and logical thinking, it is still hard to beat.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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