Serving Tomorrow by Understanding Today

 By Ernest T. Smerdon

Our 1999 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition has a grand theme, "Engineering: Education to Serve the World." A tall order, but one that ASEE is already working on.

What does it mean to have engineering education that serves the world? I think it means preparing for the future, which is not an easy task. Even great technology leaders have had difficulty predicting tomorrow's trends, as illustrated by the now-famous 1943 comment by IBM Chair Thomas Watson, who said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

One way to prepare for tomorrow is to have a thorough understanding of today, so let's look at some interesting trends that may illustrate where engineering careers are going.

Employment Patterns

An increasing percentage of new engineering graduates and engineers under the age of 30 are employed by small companies. The latest information from the National Science Foundation's Scientists and Engineers Statistical System shows that 53 percent of the engineers aged 45 to 55 in the for-profit private sector work in large companies (those with more than 5,000 employees). For those younger than 30, that percentage drops to less than 41 percent. Moreover, 19 percent of these young engineers are employed by small companies that have fewer than 100 employees-nearly half as many as in large companies. I believe this is a significant trend that will continue.

A more dramatic shift involves increasing numbers of engineers employed in service-related functions compared with those employed in the production of goods. Here my data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as reported in Employment Shifts in High-Tech Industries, 1988-96 (see Luker & Lyons in Monthly Labor Review, June 1997). Luker and Lyons examined R&D-intensive high-tech industries and found a dramatic employment shift toward service functions. Some examples:

If one compares two Standard Industrial Classification categories related to computers-computer and office equipment and computer and data-processing services-some dramatic shifts in employment are evident. For the period 1988 to 1996, employment in the manufacturing-oriented computer and office equipment category by 21.5 percent. On the other hand, employment in service-oriented computer and data processing services increased by 73.4 percent.

Broadly, the service employment share of all R&D-intensive high-tech employment rose by almost 11 percent, from 28.0 to 38.9 percent, between 1988 and 1996. Manufacturing employment fell from 70 to 60 percent during that same period. There seems, therefore, to be clear evidence of two significant shifts in U.S. high-tech industries: very slow overall growth in employment in high-tech industries, and the trend in employment opportunities toward services and away from manufacturing.

Why this sudden change? Perhaps engineers have been too effective at developing powerful tools to make design and manufacturing more efficient. While there is an increasing need for creativity in engineering, fewer engineers will be in the traditional engineering jobs of the recent past. The future opportunities will increasingly be in services related to information technology and knowledge management in the industrial sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 1994 and 2005, output in the computer industry will rise by an annual rate of 7.3 percent. Employment levels during that time, on the other hand, are expected to fall at an annual rate of 2.6 percent.

Education in the Future

Based on these and other relevant data, I feel secure predicting a few things.

Using the power of information technology, engineering education activities will become increasingly global. Engineering education must become more encompassing, with an eye to the many new industries that will be served by engineers. To accommodate these changes, we must broaden the base of our education to keep the doors open to opportunities that cannot possibly be visualized now. For example, biology for all engineers is a must, lest we close the door to the vast array of bioengineering opportunities that will emerge.

Education must also become more efficient and effective. Just as the production of goods has obtained the high efficiency that we could not have been imagined a few decades back, the efficacy of the learning process can and must increase. We must understand the learning process and maximize the transformation of information into knowledge. This integrative process builds on the math- and science-based analytical approach to engineering education of years past, and success will require better use of technology to achieve our education goals.

To achieve these goals requires that the professors of tomorrow make unprecedented changes. The past is prologue. As the book opens to the new millennium, we must open our minds and adopt new approaches. Are you ready?

There is a simple job to be done. The task can be stated in concrete terms. The necessary techniques are known. The equipment needed can be provided. Nothing stands in the way but cultural inertia.
-B. F. Skinner

return to PRISM online