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LAST WORD

ONCE AN ENGINEER ALWAYS AN ENGINEER

- By Wayne Clough

Engineering is a noble profession and I am proud to be a part of it. During my career as a civil engineer, I have been fortunate to have served as a designer, planner, builder, and consultant. The work I did during those years still flows in my veins and remains keen in my memory. My goal, and that of my engineering colleagues, is to keep engineering strong and vital, because we know the important role we play in creating a better world.

More recently my calling has been as a leader in higher education. In this role, I have been frequently reminded of the larger impacts of an engineering education. I have also been afforded a view of society's need for those who have the benefit of an engineering education and can move beyond what we might narrowly define as engineering. I believe the need for such individuals is growing.

As I meet alumni of Georgia Tech's engineering programs who have been out of school for 20 years or so, I find it interesting that only a minority are working in traditional engineering jobs. I am intrigued by how many are remarkably successful in endeavors beyond engineering, in fields such as medicine, law, public service, management, finance, and strategic planning. In talking with my engineering colleagues in higher education, I find they have made similar observations about their alumni.

Yet, scratch beneath the surface of any person who studied engineering and moved to another field, and they will say that the analytical and problem-solving skills they gained from engineering studies were the key to their achievements. Unfortunately, we seem to have a difficult time relating the study of engineering to success in other fields and using this connection to attract bright young people to study engineering. We do too little to celebrate the contribution of engineering education to accomplishments outside our own field, perhaps out of fear we might take something away from those who are consummate engineers—a false concern in my view.

Engineering-based analytical thinking is more essential than ever in a growing range of pursuits. One has only to look to the legislative and regulatory decisions set repeatedly before our elected representatives at the national, state, and local levels. Elected officials often have to vote on issues involving complex scientific and engineering principles. Corporations and universities also face problems that call for the engineering mindset. Yet, instead of seeking to recruit young people who might fill such roles in engineering studies, we primarily emphasize the model of the traditional engineer. This approach is self-limiting, given the reality the world shows us about the problems that need to be solved and about the career paths of our alumni.

I believe we should make the effort to document not only what engineers do to solve technical problems, but also what all those who have an engineering education do for society at large. We should appeal to those who have decided to leave engineering and tackle other careers to join with us in celebrating the broader value of an engineering education. In so doing, we will increase our potential to revive interest in the study of engineering, attracting both those who will stay the course in the profession as well as those who will bring honor to an engineering education through their accomplishments in other fields.

It is said, once an engineer, always an engineer. Honoring the work of our colleagues who take the path most often traveled helps rekindle the romance for the essence of engineering.

 

JWayne Clough is the president of the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the President's Council on Science and Technology.
He can be reached at wclough@asee.org.

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