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Making Policy, One Student at a Time

By Linda Creighton

A program that blends engineering and government is hard to sell at a time when jobs are plentiful.

After getting her undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Australia's University of Melbourne and working for five years as a consultant, Joulia Dib decided it was time to make a difference. “I wanted to be more politically active,” says Dib, a 29-year-old Australian. “I wanted an arena where I could help to ensure that those in our society who have little influence are not forgotten.”Illustration by Lung-I Lo

Dib hit the jackpot. Surfing the Internet to find a way to remain an engineer while still realizing her broader goal, Dib found the Goldman School at the University of California at Berkeley, a top-flight public-policy school connected to one of the nation's top engineering schools. The two schools offered a tailor-made joint-degree program in public policy and engineering.

Berkeley-trained engineers have been at the heart of public policy for generations. Earlier graduates designed and produced everything from the microelectronics that transformed Silicon Valley to the networks of aqueducts that ferried water to California's fertile agricultural land. Berkeley engineers had a hand, as well, in producing towering structures that were unprecedented for their time—from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Dib is pursuing her joint degree in transportation engineering—a field that blends the challenges of engineering with the intricacies of public policy. “Engineering is a very technical field,'” Dib says. “We use a lot of numbers and statistical packages and modeling packages to come up with the ideal solution to a problem. But then you quickly find that most transportation decisions are made on political grounds and not technical grounds.”
Why, then, does such an attractive program have Dib as its only student this year? With the rapid growth of technology and societal changes, why aren't more engineers looking at this program, and why aren't there more programs like it?

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy at Goldman and himself a dual-trained engineer/architect, laments the difficulties facing such forward-thinking training programs. “CEOs openly concede that seven out of their top 10 problems stem from government regulation, taxes, and Federal Reserve issues,” O'Hare says. “But you ask the CEOs: ‘Are you hiring public policy grads?' The answer is no.”

O'Hare says the narrow outlook complicates the fund raising that's needed to promote and expand the joint degree program.

“One would think that public policy programs would be a very important investment in getting people in government who understand what business is about,” O'Hare says. “But it's very hard to raise money from the business community for public policy programs.”

Another reason this type of program may have limited appeal is the workload. Averaging 60 hours of class and study each week, engineering students taking part in the joint degree program take on the same substantial field work required of single-degree students, in a shorter amount of time. The full time, two-year program features core courses in the first year, an internship during the intervening summer, and a policy analysis project in the second and final year tackling real-life problems for outside clients. Difficulty in transferring credit from one academic track to the other is also a stubborn problem, as when Dib had to repeat in engineering an economics requirement already completed in public policy.

The small faculty of 12 includes only two engineers, O'Hare says. “It's an extremely small program,” he points out, noting that the demands of the joint-degree students may not get priority in the large engineering program at Cal, one of the best in the nation.

Michael Nacht, dean of the three-decade-old public policy school, says his academic team faces an uphill battle trying to recruit promising engineers for a public-policy match in the face of a vibrant job market offering big-money private-sector jobs for engineers.

“It's a tough sell for younger people driven by the excitement of technology and the bottom line,” says Nacht, a New York University engineering graduate with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics whose last assignment was to serve as the Senate-confirmed assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency handling U.S. nuclear weapons policy with Russia and China. “We have more success with demonstrating a career path for those who are driven by a desire to see a broader impact for their work.”

For Dib, who will complete her dual degrees this year and is being courted by industry and government, it has been the right choice. “Having a dual degree is definitely an asset you can sell,” she says.

Dib's field of transportation is an apt example of the choices available at Goldman, says her professor O'Hare. “If you want to design highways, then you want to be in an engineering contract firm,” he says. “But if you want to get all the people in the San Francisco Bay area to work and home, then you probably want to be in the Department of Transportation. If you think big and want to make a big difference, a way to do it and pretty quickly is in government.”

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

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