When I graduated from college almost 30 years ago, I told a friend who was attending law school that I was interviewing for engineering jobs. “So what do engineers do?” he asked me. “Fix refrigerators?”
A few days ago, I vividly recalled that moment while culling through the hundred-plus e-mails I received after Design News published a long story about a potential engineering crisis in the U.S. For those who missed it, the story detailed China’s national drive to crank out a million engineers a year, and contrasted it with the United States’ struggle to boost its engineering grad numbers to just 75,000.
Going through the e-mails, I expected to hear voices of concern from the engineering community. And while I did hear that, I also found a larger contingent of frustrated engineers who felt Corporate America neither values nor understands them.
To hear them tell it, an effort to crank out more engineers would be futile because American corporate heads no longer have a feel for the engineering profession nor the once-respected college engineering degree.
“As an engineer, it has been blatantly obvious that the typical corporate culture is anti-engineer and has been for some time,” wrote one reader. “Engineers are seen as a liability, not an asset.’”
Added another: “There is no glamour, no riches, nothing but a barely adequate living for engineers now. Mostly, we are one of the biggest expenses on the books.”
And yet another: “Starting pay for an engineer is close to that of a rookie policeman. Engineering productivity has vastly outstripped engineering compensation. Career paths outside of management are unremunerative and advancement is slow.”
We received so many of these kinds of e-mails, and so many containing similar despairing messages, that they became impossible to ignore. Combine those with recent surveys showing that 60 percent of American adults don’t even know what engineers do, and it’s not surprising that some corporate heads may be strikingly ignorant of the roles of their own engineering staffs.
Before we indict all of Corporate America, however, let’s stop to look around us. We’re a society that successfully builds skyscrapers, massive telephone, electrical, radio, water, and sewer infrastructures, not to mention millions of reliable cars, trucks, computers, televisions, cell phones and myriad other products. Clearly, engineers are still succeeding. The wheels haven’t fallen off yet.
So what’s the real problem? Is it that a small segment of Corporate America believes, like my law school friend, that engineers are glorified refrigerator repairmen? Or is it more widespread than that?
We’d like to hear from you. Tell us how widespread you think the situation is. And then tell us how engineers should be treated. Tell us how you think you should be compensated. In particular, if you’re an engineer who’s in a good job situation, tell us why it’s good. Who knows, maybe our concerned corporate heads can learn from you.
Reach Sr. Technical Editor Chuck Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.