Recently, our country marked National Engineer’s Week 2008 (Feb. 17-24), a time to celebrate our nation’s brilliant engineering minds and be grateful for their many accomplishments. Unfortunately, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the growth, peak and current decline of this storied profession. At a time when this nation clearly needs to promote innovation and spur economic development, we seem to have lost our regard for the men and women who make such things possible.
In 1957, Sputnik triggered the panic that sent this country into a science and engineering growth spurt. Our educational system geared up to produce a mass of scientists and engineers to “catch up” with the Soviets, and indeed we did. In fact, America surpassed almost everyone in quantity if not quality of scientific and engineering talent.
Somewhere along the line, however, that science and engineering zeal has withered and died. Our society seems to place greater value on cheerleading and athletics and American corporations have begun to view engineering as a necessary evil, a cost rather than an asset, and treat engineering resources accordingly. Rare is the engineer who has not been laid off or forced to relocate to sustain a career. Many have seen colleagues return to business school in order to move on to more valued corporate tasks and the disparity between the salaries of engineers and corporate types continues to grow.
What Wall Street and the accountants and financial analysts that inhabit it do not seem to understand, however, is that without engineering there is no technological innovation, and without technological innovation we as a nation become a second- or third-rate power. In fact, it’s already happening.
Consider the situation “offshore,” where China and India are easily our biggest threats. The rise of Tata, India’s largest conglomerate, is a case in point. For years, Tata provided research and engineering support to U.S. corporations, because it was and still is cheaper for a company to bring a well-trained Tata consulting “engineer” to America for a year of training than to hire a full-time U.S.-based consultant. This exporting of knowledge and talent has allowed Tata to become a multibillion dollar powerhouse, easily capable of buying its former U.S. clients.
So, how do we reverse this trend? The answer is for companies to put real value on the accumulated engineering experience and regard engineers as they would a valuable database of critical information. Reward experience and allow seasoned engineers to mentor the next generation.
Additionally, corporate leaders should take advantage of the current “open innovation” movement. A creeping awareness of global competition has caused companies to look for outside engineering support to help them “get innovative” again. By tapping U.S.-based resources for outside assistance, local companies can bring technologies to market quicker and more cost effectively.
Finally, we must dedicate more than one week a year to recognizing our engineers and scientists. These talented men and women have been a driving force behind our nation’s innovative achievements and with their help we can chart a course to even greater discovery in the future.
Mike Rainone is co-founder of PCDworks, a technology development firm that specializes in breakthrough product innovation. He regularly analyzes emerging technology on his blog at