Letters - November 4, 2010

Nov. 4, 2010
Letters - November 4, 2010 -- Justice and hollow engineering departments

Justice and hollow engineering departments
Engineers are still more interested in doing top-notch engineering work than social work. And many find themselves working in isolation in “hollowed-out” engineering departments for companies that spend more on marketing than engineering. Interestingly enough, we’ve never gotten quite as many requests to withhold the names of letter writers than we did on our “hollowed-out” piece.

No justice, no matter
I think the concerns about social justice (“Why engineers shouldn’t worry about social justice,” Sept. 9) is another example of a perfectly good term being hijacked. I would submit that the framing of this issue is wrong because what sets engineering apart from science and mathematics is the need to create things that benefit people. We design and build sewage systems and clean water systems that improve health. Try arguing social justice if you don’t have those. We design and build homes and skyscrapers that house people and let them work in comfort and safety. And we design and build vehicles and roads that move people and goods, and we make them safer, more convenient and less polluting every year.

So I reject the notion that engineers shouldn’t worry about social justice or responsibility. What we need to do is to insist that people quantify what they mean by these terms. And while they are flailing around at that, you can be pretty sure that if it is economical and ethical, it’s probably a social good. -- Tim Saxe

Many of the points in your editorial are well taken and make sense. Especially because in most cases, managers dictate what is being designed. There is no doubt that political influence and special interests are poor sources for engineering designs. One example in our renewable-energy industries is the EPA’s attempt to regulate ethanol production from corn based on a formula involving how a gallon of corn ethanol made in the U. S. displaces an area of rain forest in South America. In most cases, our only opportunity to address these political issues is in the voting booth.

However, the phrase “simply deploy resources the way the numbers say is most efficient” coupled with your position that “engineers shouldn’t worry about social justice” is irresponsible and degrades the profession. Engineers should always think about more than just the numbers on a piece of paper or computer monitor. In fact, many of our greatest technological advances and entrepreneurial successes have resulted from engineers looking beyond the obvious numbers in front of their faces and expanding their thinking to include other social or economic factors. Ultimately, society and the economy will often dictate the directions engineers stake. -- James Pope

I read with similar dismay your editorial about engineering and social justice. I view social-justice efforts as an attempt to further abstract professions which are clearly characterized by physical sciences. Social pressure has already taken its toll on engineering-education engineers in the U. S. as most universities have buckled to pressure for “humanistic and social” content as a significant portion of the credit hours needed to graduate. A current review of the engineering college I graduated from shows requirements for “Cross-cultural awareness” and “Science and technology in society.” I know the plea, back in the day, was that institutions needed to produce “more well-rounded engineers”, but what they are turning out now are “more well-watered-down engineers” instead. This leads me to three points:

1. I paid good money to get a technical education and was coerced or robbed to subsidize social humanities programs because I wasn’t able to devote more of my time to engineering.
2. Aside from technical writing and perhaps public speaking, the high schools in the U. S. should bear the burden of our generalist educational requirements. They certainly could if students applied themselves and took AP English, sociology, psychology, foreign language, etc., in high school. Make those requirements for graduation and then just get on with the program.
3. Technical education outside the U. S. often follows the “pure” technology route and results in four-year programs which are equivalent to a U. S. masters degree in engineering. (I feel ripped off again.)

We need to graduate the best technical minds in the world, and we can’t do that when we mandate all the additional fluff. -- Douglas Blew

I think the issue of making “social justice” a part of engineering is similar to what has happened in America over the last few years: Our leaders are deciding what we need, not listening to us or taking the time to find out what our real problems are and solving them. It is presumptuous and obnoxious to decide for others what they need and what they need to do, and to force it upon them.

Revolt and payback are the natural response.
This is one taxpaying engineer who has had about enough of forced government regulation and “help.” I am ready to join the revolution. -- Jim Buckingham

I think engineers should have the responsibility to consider how their product will be used.

For example, any engineer that designs vehicles should be made to disassemble and reassemble any vehicle they design. Cars would quickly become more repair-friendly, resulting in lower repair costs. An instance, changing the alternator in my older truck is a half-hour job I can do in my driveway. Replacing the alternator in my newer SUV took 3 hours in the dealer’s garage, plus $600 of parts and labor. -- Ted Lynds

So hollow it echoes
Thank you, James I. Finkel, for the article (“The case of the hollowed-out engineering department,” Sept. 9). As a “newbie,” I was starting to think the way my new company operates was a little suspect, having watched corporate mismanagers struggle to understand simple process-related issues of the business they supposedly run. Now I know it is a common occurrence. I look at your chart and picture myself in the middle, without much support, and a deadline and wonder: “What should I name my new business?” -- Name withheld by request

I left a large automotive company back in 2007 where I had observed a similar “hollow“ environment. For example, I saw managers and supervisors moving into CAE when they had little or no background in it but did not fit anywhere else in the company. How could they mentor new engineers and nurture them in engineering when they had not moved throughout the ranks in CAE? I saw many experienced engineers leave because they had difficulty communicating with their CAE-illiterate managers. I also saw engineers saddled with too much bureaucratic paperwork and too many meetings. Many good engineers became coordinators in managing projects which were shipped overseas. Product engineering requires years of knowledge and all that knowledge cannot be retained on paper or in computer files. Engineering has truly hollowed and unless we retain experienced engineers and their knowledge, while training new engineers, we will lose our battles with foreign competitors. -- Name withheld by request

I’m two years out of college and this is my first engineering job (barring co-ops). I no longer have an engineering manager and instead report directly to the Plant Manager.

I’m considering finding another place of employment, but will I still be running into the same situation? I think this will be my first question at my next job interview. -- Name withheld by request

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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