Yes, engineering still has an image problem. People just
don't get us. If you've read this column before, you know that I touch on this
theme periodically. The fact is, we don't tell our story very well.
Professional societies, trade
associations, companies and universities spend hundreds of millions every year
to improve the public's understanding and impressions of engineering, but a
recent Harris poll shows that people still believe we care more about
technology than improving lives. That matters.
Public policy is based on public impressions and the future of
the engineering industry is dependent upon policies that protect intellectual
property rights, fair trade, jobs, STEM education, research tax credits and a
world-class home-grown workforce. We all
need government and corporate leaders, along with voters and families,
to recognize how central engineering is to our nation's future. For this to
happen, they need to know us better.
The National Academy of Engineering is launching headfirst into
this challenge. Granted, they are not known for having a lot of Madison Avenue
savvy, but the NAE feels compelled to use its influence to help advance the
public's perception of engineering. The group's recently published study,
"Changing the Conversation," sets out to develop coordinated messaging "about
the role, importance and career potential of engineering." From there, it will
be up to organizations that care about engineering to adopt these messages in
teaching tools, student recruiting brochures, federal reports and national
commercials. (I recently attended a stakeholders meeting at the NAE to explore
"No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like
engineering," is the opening line of the report's position statement. Good
start, but like all inspirational marketing, there is always a gap that needs
filling between vision and reality. Here are just a couple of examples I have
been focusing on:
current, often staid, academic programs have high potential for turning
off the new generation of students who will respond to a more heroic view of
engineering. Solution: Push hard to ensure that universities provide exciting
real-world engineering projects through all four years of college.
struggling to retain talented, experienced engineers don't necessarily want to
lose them to management; others argue that the technical track would remain
more attractive if it contained a path to greater responsibility and rewards
while staying on the engineering side of the business. Solution: Push companies
and professional societies to better explore and define a wider variety of
career paths for engineers. This will help recruit an even wider range of
talented individuals to our field.
The NAE meeting was successful
in ways I never expected. In one respect, just putting together a room full of engineers
to discuss new messaging strategies is daunting. But while we came together to
develop messages to share with people outside our field, it's possible that we
realized our biggest success was in learning how to talk to each other about
where we'd like to aim the future of engineering.