I'm optimistic that the new year will bring newfound respect for engineers, and not of the Rodney Dangerfield variety. I think we're finally on the verge of getting some credit from the general public for the tough work we do.
The first impediment towards elevated esteem is that the average person doesn't really know what an engineer is or does. Truth be told, I'm not so sure we're all agreed on it either. When I was at school, we were told that engineers found cost-effective solutions to problems. That's sometimes but not always true -- think defense contracting. In any case, it falls far short of the mark.
The always-reliable Wikipedia defines an engineer as "a professional practitioner of engineering." Gee, thanks, crowdsourcers. Dictionary.com says it's a person "skilled in the design, construction, and use of engines or machines." I guess that finally puts the EEs in their place.
Henry Petroski made a cogent point in his Design News column, Distinguishing Between Scientists & Engineers . He noted how newspapers consistently use "science" when they mean "engineering." Thus scientists become the embodiment of white-coat wisdom and we engineers are back in Dangerfield territory.
The reason I think this is finally changing is due to another misconception, but one that works in our favor. It involves Steve Jobs, whose biography was the top selling book of 2011. Most folks mistakenly assume he was an engineer. In fact, he was a college dropout, as is Bill Gates. (Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak is an engineer, having returned to school and earned his degree in 1986.)
Steve Jobs is revered by the general public. Clearly this is not because of his personality -- he was famously a bully, which is inappropriate, though not rare, in titans of industry. It's because, although he wasn't an engineer, he "engineered" stuff through managing the design process performed by engineers working for him.