In the loop: Honk if you're an engineer

May 1, 2001
In contemporary society, there are two ways to establish a steady flow of talent into an occupational field. One way is by paying well

In contemporary society, there are two ways to establish a steady flow of talent into an occupational field. One way is by paying well. The other way is by running promotional campaigns.

Occupations such as ball playing, stock trading, and corporate management, for example, fall into the first category. Granted the careers are often short and the sacrifices extreme, but you can bet that behind every major-league shortstop, Wall Street investor, and CEO are hundreds of hopeful prospects waiting to fill their shoes.

As for the second group, jobs we have to be told are worthy of consideration, nursing and teaching immediately come to mind. Now here you have two occupational groups making vital contributions to society, for whom we can do no better than paste up bumper stickers with slogans like “Hug a nurse” and “Nurses care” or “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

I’m not sure how nurses and teachers feel about this, but if it were me — if I ever see bumper stickers patronizing the engineering profession — I’d be quite disappointed. And regrettably, it could happen.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) recently launched a promotion called the The American Engineering Campaign. The goal is not so much to help working engineers like you, but to combat what’s becoming a major engineering shortage.

“We are embarking on a nationwide campaign because we are concerned about the number of students receiving engineering degrees,” says Patrick J. Natale, executive director of the NSPE. And, to reverse the trend, it sounds like the NSPE is going to do for engineers what the teaching and nursing associations did for their constituents — distribute tee-shirts and bumper stickers, glamorize the profession, and, in general, sweep the truth under the rug.

If enrollment is down, there must be a reason. In fact, there are several. First and foremost is money. Why should a bright kid work his or her tail off in engineering school, when a relative cakewalk in another program promises more opportunities over the long run?

Another reason is that, unlike the previous generation, today’s engineers are not encouraging theirs sons and daughters to go into the field. I’m certainly not, given my experiences.

About the time I started my first job out of grad school, at a small defense subcontractor, the company hired a new marketing guy. Not only did I have the more advanced degree, but I understood the company’s technology better, and I could explain it better in technical as well as layman’s terms.

My “welcoming party” was lunch at Pizza Hut with a small group of coworkers. The marketing guy, on the other hand, went over to the vice president’s house for dinner, then out on his boat to see fireworks. He moved right into a nice office; I waited three weeks to get an old desk in an open area next to a pillar. They didn’t even bother to clean out the drawers.

Nowadays, I think everyone, including high-school career counselors, knows this is how it works. Should anyone be surprised, then, that between 1986 and 1998, the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in engineering declined by 19.8 percent, while the number of all bachelor’s degrees awarded increased 20 percent?

Ironically the NSPE sees this as bad news, when, in fact, for you it is good news. Imagine what it could mean when you sit down for your next performance and salary review. I know how it is. Engineers are generally regarded as an expense and, hence, have little leverage or recourse during reviews. Where I worked, once a year all engineers would get a flat, across-the-board raise based not on individual performance, but on some bean counter’s penny pinching budget. One year it was an insulting 1.125%.

The NSPE, understandably, doesn’t want to dirty its hands with that end of the business. So instead, it’s going to masquerade the profession as something it is not.

“It’s up to us to educate the public about the exciting opportunities for engineers today,” Natale explains. “We will show young people how engineers change the world — from the Internet, to Disney World’s new rides, to the most advanced medical devices.” Sure, that’s like telling a group of kids on a playground, “Here, I’d like you to meet Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. If you dedicate the rest of your life and all your money to this basketball program, you could be like them.”

Let’s get real. For all the hard work they put in, during school and on the job, engineers, like nurses and teachers, don’t get paid nearly enough. Even worse, they are usually denied the incentives given to most others around them.

Pay engineers what they’re worth and watch the enrollment go up. If we as a technology dependent society can’t do that, then we don’t deserve all the conveniences developed... not by marketing and sales gurus, but by the thousands of nameless, faceless engineers like you and, at one time, me.

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