MD's 75th Anniversary - Changes in engineering

Feb. 19, 2004
New technologies and a more diverse workplace keep the profession in flux.

Changes in engineering

Stephen Mraz

Senior Editor

To get an idea of how the engineering profession has changed over the seven and a half decades Machine Design has been published, we interviewed leaders in an array of engineering organizations.

Technology explosion

The most obvious change has been the nonstop expansion of technology, including growth in old, established fields such as mechanics and electricity, and entirely new fields including space travel, nanotechnology, and fiber optics.

John Brooks Slaughter, NACME: Engineering affects all of our lives in ways that were not imaginable 50 to 75 years ago. You can't walk down the street without seeing people talking on cell phones, and we all have new conveniences and tools in our homes. PDAs, for example, have more power than the largest IBM computers 30 years ago, and we carry them in our pocket or on our wrists. Unfortunately, people no longer understand what's going on inside all these black boxes, and engineering has become a process that just a few people really understand. All of this means the role of engineers will be even more important in the future.

Bill Wulf, NAE: As technology expands, the design space or options engineers have to solve problems, their primary job description, has gotten much larger. My father, for example, was a mechanical engineer. He had a small list of all the materials he could use. It had properties for several different steels, some bronzes, and a few dozen other metals. Now we have designer materials and you can specify conductivity, elasticity, whatever property you want. So the number of design options has exploded, as has the number of computer-based design options and tools.

At the same time, there are more constraints on engineering solutions. For instance, I don't think my father knew the word ergonomics, and yet you would be irresponsible if you disregarded ergonomics in virtually anything you design today. Same with environmental impact. It just wasn't part of my father's vocabulary. So the design space has gotten larger, along with the constraints set, and that makes engineering a tougher problem than it was.

Another impact of the technology explosion is in society's expectations. We now have such good computer modeling, a company can design an airliner, never build a mockup or prototype, and expect it to fly the first time out of the hangar. So now many people expect zero defects, and they expect them on the first version of the product. My dad's boss knew my dad was a good designer and that the first version of the machine probably wouldn't work, but they'd tinker with it, learn from it, and eventually get a good solution. That approach doesn't work anymore, for a variety of reasons, including society's penchant for litigation.


Richard Tax, AEA: Positive changes to the profession, the improved tools, computers, software, test equipment, product-development procedures, and communications, stem from new technologies that have come from the profession itself.

Betty Shanahan, SWE: For engineers, the new technologies often automate mundane engineering tasks in laying out and checking designs, and maintenance. Advances in communication especially, have made it easy to share engineering information between design team members.

Teresa A. Helmlinger, NSPE: There are more technologies and tools, some that make it easier to do engineering, such as FEA and computer simulation. But this also leads to engineers becoming a commodity, letting less-qualified people do design and analysis, and letting engineering go overseas. This could be stopped or slowed by insisting on more licensing to ensure engineers are well trained, ethical, and know the technical and ethical standards they should work to.

Changing faces

Helmlinger: Another major change is the increase in diversity, with more women and minorities in the profession. And diversity is good for engineering in that different life experiences and perspectives help design teams identify problems and come up with novel solutions.

Wulf: Diversity is a priority at NAE, and we were making steady progress, not enough of course, toward getting women and underrepresented minorities up to their percentages in incoming and outgoing engineering classes until about 10 years ago, We've seem to have gone flat over the past 10 years. We're looking into whether we need to redouble our efforts on known interventions that worked in the past, or whether we've gotten as much as possible from those interventions as we can and need to do something else in addition. And if we do, what are those other things.

Slaughter: When I graduated from engineering school, the percentage of minority grads was between 1 and 2%, today it's closer to 10%. There are several reasons. One of the most important is that plain old discrimination, which was the biggest barrier to progress in many fields, has been reduced, especially in the last 30 years. Still, far too many young minority people are in elementary and secondary schools that don't provide them with an education that makes it possible to be successful in a challenging field like engineering.

Cost also continues to be a major factor, largely because minority families have an average income 60% that of white family incomes, so minorities have a bigger financial need, overall. That's why providing scholarships is a major activity for NACME.

Society recognizes that barriers to entry into engineering by minorities need to be eliminated. And most businesses recognize the importance of a more diverse workforce.

Although it's much improved, it's still not satisfactory in many ways. Society's goal ought to be achieving parity in the workforce, without making it a quota system. The target should be to have minority students as likely to be an engineer as majority students, then we will have solved a lot of problems.

Shanahan: From a female perspective, engineering has gotten much more integrated. But increases in the number of women engineers have been modest. In 1999, for example, only 10.6% of all engineers were women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. You can compare that to 5.8% in 1983.SWE believes in the goal of parity for the engineering profession when compared to the participation of women in the total workforce.

Unfortunately, the number of students getting engineering degrees has dropped, despite more people than ever before being enrolled in college. This is ironic in a society so dependent on engineering. So unless the situation changes, there don't seem to be enough young people of any gender or ethnic background interested in pursuing engineering careers.

I blame this on several factors. The most important is the lack of a math and science in K-12 education. Engineers need a high level of math and science. And from what I hear from teachers, programs like No Child Left Behind don't test in science, so teachers aren't motivated to teach it. They struggle to find time to teach beyond the test. And if students don't have the math and science, they're just not equipped to major in engineering in college.

This is amplified for women, who, studies show, lose interest in math as early as eighth grade, though they continue performing as well as boys. And often society doesn't encourage them to perform in math or science. For example, if a girl doesn't do well in an algebra test, it's no big deal. It isn't "expected" of girls. But thanks to the Feminist Movement and the fact that women are entering all areas of the workforce and performing well, those attitudes are quickly changing.

Role models are also crucial. They show you what is possible. It's discouraging being one of the very few if not the only woman in a company. You don't see any women in positions above you on the corporate ladder. And remember, a role model is usually someone who has made just a few steps more than you have, not succeeded on some national level.

The engineering profession also has a PR problem. In 1998, for example, a survey found that 61% of Americans had little idea what engineers are or do. Parents, teachers, and even guidance counselors don't know enough about engineering to know its value or why it's important to study math and science for an engineering career. And about the only image of engineering out there is summed up by Dilbert. You can image how many 14-year-old girls want to grow up and be like the figures they see in Dilbert.

Engineering education

Slaughter: The divisions between engineering disciplines have become blurred and perhaps disappeared. What we once thought of as stand-alone disciplines -- mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and civil engineering -- have moved together in many ways, and that has changed the profession and it will change how engineering is taught.

Wulf: Unfortunately, it's true that people have a hard time distinguishing the engineering curriculum today from the one they went through 40 years ago. Sure, they no longer teach drafting, and not everyone takes surveying, but other than that, there haven't been many great changes. And although it is difficult to point out what we need to get rid of, we should think about what we could teach more effectively.

For instance, we still teach four semesters of continuous mathematics. But when I started college, virtually no one had calculus in high school, so we all started out from an algebra base. Today, most people who go to college for engineering have had some calculus. So why are we still devoting four semesters to continuous math.

If I had the power, engineering students would have a lot more lab work, and it would start in the first year. There would also be lot of assignments and experiments done in teams. There's also a lot of engineering that can be done with algebra and high-school physics. Students in their first years should be doing much more of that, letting them see early in their college career what engineering is really about.

And the baccalaureate should not be the first professional engineering degree. It should be done more like an MBA with a four-year prep program, followed by a year or two of practice, then come back and get the engineering degree. It would be a much more effective education once you've had a little bit of experience.

Another needed change is to establish a culture of lifelong learning in the profession. After all, engineering will continue to change, and it's likely that rate of change will accelerate, so you can't assume four or six years of education in your late teens and early twenties will be enough for a life of employment. Other fields such as medicine and law have lifelong learning built into their cultures. Engineering hasn't. And the average engineering school makes very little provisions for education beyond formal degrees. A few city schools do, most residential universities do not.

When it comes to whether engineers or their employers should be responsible for ongoing education, I have more faith in the companies. They make rational decisions, and they know there are real costs to bringing neophytes onboard. There are companies like Motorola with Motorola U, that require all engineers take 40 hours of class every year, and the company pays for it. It's a rational decision in their own self-interest.

Shanahan: In the not-too-distant past, and I'm sure it still exists somewhere, engineering education started with fundamental and difficult, "weeder" classes. Students often have only a vague understanding of why they are taking these courses. It is usually junior or even senior year before students discover what engineering is all about, that it's usually multidiscipline, and you usually work in teams, rarely alone.

Schools are slowly changing, with some introducing most of this earlier in the education cycle. And courses should be taught because the information is important. We need to get rid of the traditional "core" of rigorous classes. Courses should be tailored to help students succeed, not weed students out, and courses are moving this direction.

Tax: Engineering colleges have shaved 17% off the length of the semester in the last 40 years. Content has also been reduced from 144 credit hours to 128. When it comes to engineers, we need quality, not quantity.

The dark side of engineering

Helmlinger: Many companies look at engineers as commodities, so work can be done anywhere. And companies will always look for the lowest-cost engineering hour.

There has also been an increase in engineering lapses in ethics and performance that have increased the risk to human safety. Again, one solution is to enforce licensing, make it more universal, and thereby set standards, making it more difficult to send engineering offshore.

Slaughter: The fact is, the U.S. exports jobs and imports talent, so we're losing much of the incentive for native-born students to pursue engineering. Many of the jobs they would do are being done in low-cost countries. And if you look at our engineering grad schools, they are predominantly filled with people from developing countries, many from Asia and India, with only a small percentage of US-born students.

Wulf: Outsourcing is a challenge. But when it was low-paid, blue-collar manufacturing jobs going overseas, it didn't seem as threatening. It's a big change now that engineering jobs could go overseas.

But we should not be protectionists. Society benefits when costs go down. We should train our engineers better, so they do not become a commodity. We should be training engineers for jobs of the future, not ones from in the past.

Tax: On the negative side, the U.S. has lost or given away engineering and manufacturing job opportunities. Sending these jobs offshore is detrimental to the profession, our engineering capabilities, and our nation's economy. We need those opportunities to keep and maintain a skilled, experienced engineering workforce. Age discrimination, another symptom of an oversupply of engineers, hasn't been helpful.

Does government have a role?

Tax: The government has a major role in this whole engineering education, enrollment and workforce dilemma. Our leaders have been misled by bureaucrats. And we let them to do it by remaining silent and not fighting for our profession.

For example, the National Science Foundation publishes lies and fabrications about engineering manpower shortages. NSF shortage propaganda was used to justify legislation to import more foreign workers and students. NSF also got more taxpayer dollars for itself and its National Science Board, which consists solely of academics.

Other engineering societies will not, and never have, opposed NSF. In fact, IEEE, ASME and other societies, with their large academic memberships, support NSF. They are interested in degree production, not a cultured engineering profession.

The process goes like this: NSF lies about shortages. Congress legislates more money for NSF to increase enrollment. But to fill all of the seats, engineering colleges recruit offshore. Because if the seat is empty, the school doesn't get the NSF funds. So we import more foreign students and engineers. We have to reduce funding to NSF to balance supply and demand.

Another government problem-producing agency is the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Department. They prepare the occupational outlook handbooks found in every library in the country and used by high-school guidance counselors to direct naive students into engineering schools. This government seduction will end only when Occupational Outlook Department members get real.

We need to cut funding to NSF and replace every congressperson that does not support constituents and provide job opportunities.

Wulf: The government can't help but have a role in everything. But the principle responsibility is with engineers themselves. Outsourcing is an issue of improving engineering education. And while the government can support that, perhaps with funding for research into how to do it better, it's the engineers, practicing and those in academics, who must take control.

The government can't make students choose engineering as a career. But if the government wants a technological society, we need engineers from someplace.

Shanahan: The government has an interest in having a strong technical workforce, and it should be drawing on all its resources, men, women, all races, to compete in global economy.

Slaughter: It is definitely in the government's interest to align themselves with Nacme's goals. And that support should include everything from the government taking a public posture in support of these efforts to support from organizations like NSF and others that support research in educational activities.

Is it still a good career choice?

Slaughter: By all means. Our world is becoming increasing technological, which means we need people capable of both developing the next generation of technology and those who can comprehend and use it. A person who does not have technological skills is going to be cast in the position of the have-nots in the not too distant future, so it's critically important for all people to have a technological sense, that means there are people who should pursue engineering.

Wulf: Engineering, which is really problem solving is fun, creative and fascinating, and this is never a part of the stereotypes surrounding engineering. But it's what we do, create solutions. There's a wonderful quote from Theodore von Karmen, a World War II-era aerospace engineer, "Science is about understanding nature, about understanding what is. Engineering is about creating what has never been." This notion of engineering being creative is important.

You can also make a decent living. But best of all, it's a meritocracy. Members in NAE are among the best engineers in the country. And it includes people from humble and privileged background, but the reason they are in the Academy is based on the kind of engineer they are.

Engineering is also a great background for a variety of different careers. So if an engineer decides to go into management, sales, or go for a law degree, I don't see that as a lost engineer, but as engineering being a great preparation for that other job. I read a few weeks ago somewhere that 22% of Fortune 200 CEOs have a B.S. in engineering. It's the most common undergraduate degree among those executives.

Shanahan: Engineering is very rewarding. There's no better feeling than seeing the fruits of your work and the good it does for others. Almost every engineer can stand back at the end of a successful project and know they've improved the quality of life for someone. Commutes are faster and safer because of my work in Intelligent Transportation. Planes are safer because of my designs and quality inspection. Or the device I worked on is making a difference in peoples' lives, sometime extremely profoundly, sometimes in very basic ways.

There was a study done about how women choose their careers. It seems a large factor relates to societal benefits rather than monetary. Women choose careers because they can make a difference. Medicine and law have tangible, obvious benefits to society, but engineering is less known and stereotypically not an attractive choice. When young girls realize the world owes so much to the engineering profession -- from potable water to safe, efficient transportation across the street to across the globe -- they see a different picture. A career in engineering for women provides societal benefits in addition to a lucrative, challenging, and rewarding path.

Tax: I believe an engineering education is the best you can get, but I cannot recommend engineering as a good career choice at this time. Over the past 40 years engineers have had to face long periods of unemployment and low demand with young college graduates not getting the engineering jobs they studied so hard to earn. Until we achieve a balance in engineering manpower supply and demand, the profession will not provide opportunities for present or future engineers.

We are working toward a manpower balance, but we have to do this through a united AEA. We need to convince Congress to keep engineering and manufacturing jobs here in the USA. This will not happen by saying "please." We need members to apply a little pressure on their elected officials. To do this we need a large body of AEA members to influence Congress, similar to the AMA and the medical profession. In the past, engineers have depended on academic-dominated engineering societies. History shows these organizations have performed miserably in the professional arena. We can no longer leave the future of our profession in the hands of these same organizations and the people who run them. If we want change, it will have to come from us.

Roundtable participants

Our engineering authorities are:

Richard Tax, vice president of the American Engineering Association ( It promotes American leadership in engineering, science, and related technical fields. Its members work to educate Congress and the public on issues important to engineers, scientists, and related professions. AEA's goal is to enhance the profession and U.S. engineering capabilities.

Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering ( It promotes the nation's technological welfare by marshaling the knowledge and insights of eminent members of the engineering profession. It is the portal for all engineering activities at the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council.

Teresa A. Helmlinger, president of the National Society of Professional Engineers ( It represents individual engineering professionals and licensed engineers (PEs) across all disciplines. It promotes engineering licensure and ethics, enhances the engineer image, advocates and protects PEs' legal rights at the national and state levels, publishes news of the profession, and provide continuing education opportunities, and much more.

John Brooks Slaughter, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering ( The council provides leadership and support for the national effort to increase the representation of successful African-American, American Indian, and Latino women and men in engineering and technology, math and science-based careers.

Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of Society Of Women Engineers ( It's the largest nonprofit educational and service organization representing both student and professional women in engineering and technical fields.

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