I think your point about people not fully understanding what exactly a engineer does contributes fully to any perception that there's a lack of respect. Riding on the heels of complex and beloved products like the iPad or an EV like the Chevy Volt, the role of engineering is becoming far more complex, necessitating a blending of skills that go far beyond what any traditional perception is of a back-room, tinkerer, fix-it guy. As mainstream folks begin to associate the fruits of engineers' and designers' labor with cutting-edge and life-changing products, I agree their status is bound to rise.
It also doesn't hurt that there is a growing cry in Washington for programs and funding to nuture engineering and science skills in our children to help boost innovation and keep America's competitive edge. That has to help bolster the perception of engineering as a central cog in America's future.
Good points, Alex. I believe respect for engineers will rise as the need grows and the scarcity increases. They're fighting over engineering talent in Silicon Valley. In a recent interview Mark Zukerberg named "obtaining talent" as Facebook's greatest challenge. And while computer coding crosses a couple disciplines, engineering is one. Technological innovation globally is fought on the ground of engineering.
China is graduating ten times the engineers the U.S. is producing. Mexico has pulled even with the U.S. in the number of graduates. Some American engineers pooh-pooh these developments, saying that engineers in Mexico and China can't match U.S. engineers. Yet recently, engineers in Detroit have insisted that the engineers in Mexico have pulled even with U.S. engineers in expertise. We can thank Delphi for some of that.
The meme, or more correctly the reality, that engineers don't get enough respect has been with us for far longer than I've been associated with the profession. Truth be told, we have no one to blame for this but ourselves. Doctors and lawyers banded together for their own personal advantage. Working ngineers ceded that authority to employers and academics.
"Obtaining talent" is a code phrase employers use when what they really mean is "obtaining cheap engineering labor." Again, going back to my doctors/lawyers analogy, you don't hear the medical arena complain they can't "obtain talent," especially when you're talking surgeons. They do, when it comes to general practitioners, where the pay isn't so great. I would say that if the United States wants to stay on top technologically and wants to get kids into STEM and become engineers, the quick and easy way to do that is to make engineering a secure, respected, and high paying profession. It actually kinda is for new grads, but talk to a 40-year-old engineer and you will hear a different and perhaps more bitter take on the disposability of seasoned technical talent.
Thanks Alex for a thoughtful and thorough piece. As an ex-anthropology student, I especially noticed your mentions of crowdsourcing and groupthink, both of which make it not only hard to say "No," as Jobs did, but also to take a stance or say anything you think the group may disagree with. Both of these are phenomena of mass behavior, which has increased enormously during my lifetime as the population of the planet has doubled and mass communications--an actual topic back when I was in college--have become the norm, fostered first by TV (my generation) and now the Internet (younger folks). Of course, to some people this is like telling fish that they live in water.
Even as salaries for physicians drop -- especially for general practioners and internists -- the lure of medicine is still greater among American students. It's perplexing when you consider how much debt medical students build up. Many leave school with massive loans to repay and then have to struggle to pay for malpractice insurance, as well. Still, the prestige still lies with medicine and good American-born students continue to be drawn to it.
Alex, did you have this article spindled all year 2011, waiting for 2012? I'm glad you didn't publish it in the year of the Monkey.
Salary surveys in recent years showed engineers wanted respect somewhat more than they wanted higher pay.
What in the heck is wrong with employers? If a vital section of your company is willing to work for the same pay and just be appreciated, why is it so difficult to make them feel good? It's an insanely inexpensive way to keep them happy. AND YET, engineers continue to feel unloved.
I think we're a bunch of saps (and I include myself). We have to be strongly self-motivated to continue where we are in such an atmosphere.
It costs the company nothing to say to an engineer, "The company is better with you than without you".
Maybe the employers are actually acting ethically, so they don't look like hypocrites when they can that engineer's @** to improve their bottom line.
Thanks for your comment, TJ. I didn't have it queued up, but you're correct in putting out the inference that what I'm saying could be said anytime. Engineers just don't get enough respect, and I really like your suggestion of management just giving the staff some verbal love. If they can't come through with money or perks, there's no reason they can't tell engineers how valuable they are. I've always thought a lot of it stems from the broader scientific and mathematical illiteracy in the culture, where non-engineers not only don't understand what engineers do, but are also a little bit -- well, not exactly afraid of them but skittish. And so they just avoid interaction. Like we've both said, though, engineers have to be their own advocates or nothing will change.
I'm always amazed how the obvious just doesn't leap out to people discussing this subject. Doctors and lawyers are respected in their fields because they do something that the engineering profession does not. They demand and require professional licensure. We have watered down the definition of engineer to be someone with an engineering degree. Other professions police their ranks with the AMA and the Bar. But because so many engineers don't want to go that extra step, they keep the 'profession' of engineering as a commodity. As long as we see ourselves as technology mercenaries rather than professionals, employers will continue to see us as we apparently prefer to be seen. By demanding licensure to have the title 'engineer' and policing the ranks and enforcing registration laws so that the title 'engineer' cannot be used without licensure we could have 'engineers' seen as a profession again within one generation. Engineers are lazy in that way and many take offense to the very idea that they are not 'engineers' without that license. It will never change until we change this. Really.
I like your thought on Jobs and public perception of him although you could take it a step further. The general public believes that Jobs invented AND engineered everything from the PC to the iPhone to Computer-generated animation! If you've ever worked in a design or engineering department, you know how this system works.
In the best scenario, designers and engineers work together to come up with a solution that is functional, looks appealing, and has the lowest cost possible. Those solutions are presented to a board of company people (enter Jobs) who add or subtract features and make suggestions. The process is repeated until a final decision is made.
The average person does not know this. They see Jobs face everywhere and make assumptions. It's up to us to educate young people about what an engineer really does. Pay a visit to your local high school or middle school on career days. Bring in an electroniuc device, take it apart, show them how it works and where the engineers and designers fit into the big picture.
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