ASEE PRISM - October 2000
last word
Making the Engineering Family Whole

By William D. Rezak

America proved its industrial prowess once and for all during World War II. The economic boom of the 1950s and 60s was built upon effective and efficient manufacturing processes, and most engineering positions were associated with developing new products or with actual production. Undergraduate engineering education was laboratory-intensive, with plenty of hands-on experience in using instrumentation and machinery. Two-year engineering technician programs were developed to prepare para-professionals to support design and production engineers.illustration by Bruce McPherson

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The best and the brightest engineering talent gravitated to the space program and the new nuclear power industry, and engineering education started to become research and development oriented. Developments in the space and nuclear industry left a void in manufacturing and production engineering, which educators attempted to fill by creating bachelor's degrees in engineering technology.

In the 1970s and 80s, it became apparent that offshore manufacturing and production were going to prevail due to the availability of inexpensive labor, and there was less need for manufacturing and production professionals in the United States. Space and nuclear industries went into simultaneous and dramatic decline and engineering graduates once again began to fill positions at the applications end of the spectrum. Still, education technology programs at the four-year level proliferated.

Industry, however, has never adopted the job classification of engineering technologist. Graduates of four-year ET programs enter job classifications of "engineer" and compete with graduates of engineering programs. Many firms do not recognize the baccalaureate engineering technology credential, and graduates of engineering technology programs are not particularly well prepared for success on professional engineering registration examinations. In a growing number of states, they are unable to become registered.

The engineering credential is the superior one. Professionals in most states may achieve registration with four years of engineering experience after graduation from accredited programs. An engineering degree prepares students for graduate education in engineering, science, mathematics, or technology--and thus provides the most flexibility for growth and development. Additionally, entry-level jobs pay better with an engineering credential.

The time has arrived for the engineering profession to come to grips with its stepchild and bring the family together. This could be accomplished by doing away with accreditation of bachelor's degrees in engineering technology and moving successful four-year programs into the applied engineering spectrum with engineering accreditation. This may be the perfect time to address this issue, as some of the more prestigious engineering education institutions are contemplating a move to the foundation degree at the master's level with five-or six-year programs.

If this happens, many undergraduate engineering colleges will fill the applied engineering role at the baccalaureate level, and--in the process--sound the death knell for four-year engineering technology programs. There will be no way of differentiating between four-year applied engineering programs and four-year engineering technology programs.

The engineering profession could help sort out the issue by taking the following steps:

  1. ABET should do away with accreditation of four-year engineering technology programs, and absorb these into the applications end of the engineering spectrum accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.
  2. The Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET should continue to accredit two-year engineering technician programs.
  3. Engineering education should absorb four-year engineering technology faculty members into the applications engineering professorate.
  4. The Engineering Deans Council of ASEE should include membership for an appropriate number of qualified engineering technology professionals. The Engineering Technology Council should be dissolved.
  5. Two-year engineering technology degrees should be accepted as appropriate prerequisites for entering engineering programs. This could be accomplished by providing credit as appropriate toward an engineering degree, and requiring a minimum of three years of additional study in appropriate engineering curricula after transfer.

The engineering profession should resolve this matter prior to initiation of five- or six-year master's programs by engineering institutions. Otherwise, strong engineering technology programs, which bring a large cohort into the technological workforce, will be squeezed out of existence--and that is in no one's best interest.

 William D. Rezak is president of Alfred State College of Technology.

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