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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
California State University, Chico was the first school in California to offer an ABET-accredited degree program in mechatronic engineering. Now its California Mechatronics Center works with industry on machinery, robotics, and surveillance vehicles.
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