PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Last Word
Let's Stop Selling Ourselves Short

By Robert K. Weatherall

Not for the first time, the engineering profession is worried about its image. A recent Harris Poll has found that engineers rank well below scientists in public esteem. Physicians, teachers, and ministers all rank higher. So do police officers. Concerned that the profession's modest standing is a reason why more young Americans are not choosing engineering as a career, the professional societies have joined in a public awareness campaign to tell engineering's story.

They need to think what story they want to tell. Too often the profession gives an account of itself which sells itself short. It does so when it fails to recognize as engineers those who have moved up the ranks into management. Sometimes it does so explicitly, as in a 1985 National Academy report, Engineering Education and Practice in the United States, which included in the engineering "community" only those "actively engaged in engineering" or in "engineering support functions." More often it does so implicitly, as in discussions of engineering layoffs, when there is no recognition that the managers of engineering projects may be engineers themselves. The effect is to convey an image of engineers as subordinates, not movers and shakers.

The damage is compounded when, eager to make the point that the nation's engineers are one of its most valuable resources, report writers forget that they are talking about individual men and women and speak of them as if they were a commodity, albeit a precious one. Thus new engineering graduates taking their first jobs are described enthusiastically as "fodder for the technology development process." Engineering schools are described as turning out graduates "for consumption by American industry."

Pushed under the carpet is an issue that has haunted the profession since the beginning of the century, the relationship of engineers to the corporate world in which they inevitably find themselves. Can they stand apart from the organizational power structure which surrounds them or must they engage with it? Can they stand apart without becoming "organizational eunuchs" (as one sociologist has put it)? The authors of the Academy report wrote regretfully about the passing of "the lone surveyor in boots and Mackinaw, the wizard inventor in his workshop." They lamented that "the corporate engineer has come to predominate, with work characterized by large project teams [and] relative individual anonymity." But they had nothing to say on how engineers might hold their heads up in this environment.

Curricular committees are much happier addressing engineers' role in society than their place in the corporation. Thus, ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 prescribe a broad education "necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global society context". The nearest they come to recognizing the organizational context in which graduates will be working is in stipulating that they be able "to function on multi-disciplinary teams." There is no hint that they might want to lead teams, still less that they might want to climb all the way up the corporate ladder. True, many schools have recently been setting up entrepreneurship programs, but entrepreneurship can be seen as an escape from corporate ties. The entrepreneur is another adventurer in boots and Mackinaw.

The reluctance to accept the corporate world as the engineer's natural habitat sits strangely with the fact that technology has been largely responsible for the emergence of the business corporation as we know it. There were few incorporated businesses before the industrial revolution, before the harnessing of water power, then steam, to manufacturing processes previously performed by hand. A new organizational structure was needed to shoulder the cost of building a mill of any size and to manage the complexities of mill operations. In a much-quoted statement, Karl Marx wrote: "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist." He would have been closer to the mark if he had said that the first gives you the family as the economic unit, the second the corporation.

Engineers made their way into 19th century boardrooms and they continue to take their place in boardrooms today. America's largest corporation in 1870, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was headed by an engineer. Engineering graduates headed five of the ten most profitable companies in America in 1999.

The profession needs to acknowledge to itself, and make it plain to the world, that engineering involves the management of people, material resources, and money, as well as the application of technical know-how. Engineering does not begin and end in the laboratory. Vannevar Bush, an engineer-manager if ever there was one—professor, inventor, entrepreneur; coordinator of the nation's research and development in World War II—makes the point well in his reminiscences, "Pieces of the Action." We should take him as our mentor in telling engineering's story.


    Robert K. Weatherall was director of
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology's career office for 25 years.