Clearly, historical forces are in motion that are difficult for us to comprehend and impossible for individual engineers to control. An engineering degree is no longer a ticket to steady, risk-free employment. Happily we have found that an engineering education provides a solid background for many different types of work, thus helping one adapt in an ever-changing world. In recent years, engineers have found themselves sought after as bankers, accountants, management consultants, and the like. So the alert and flexible engineer will still be in a favorable position to make his or her way. And there will always be some engineers who, through their wits and entrepreneurial skills, will achieve great economic success. Nevertheless, in this unpredictable and perilous environment, I would encourage young people to think of engineering less for its economic security than for its providing a livelihood doing something they enjoy. This is not a naive view of life through rose-colored glasses, but rather a practical and realistic solution to the problem of how best to choose a career. We all want work that offers an element of fun and creativity, and for some people this is to be found in engineering.But personal choices and actions are not an adequate response to the crisis that threatens the U.S. engineering profession. The moment calls for initiatives that, for want of a better word, we must call political.
Yet engineers have traditionally been apolitical. They constitute no more than one percent of elected officials. And when they do achieve high office they too often lack the shrewdness and personality needed for success. (Consider, for example, the two engineer presidents: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.) I believe that this is not so much a question of incompetence as it is a matter of choice. And it begins early in life. It was almost bizarre how during the Vietnam years, when the nation’s college campuses were ablaze with demonstrations and dispute, the engineering students for the most part went blithely on with their studies.
To a certain extent, this attitude is healthy for the engineering profession and for society as a whole. We wouldn’t have become the leading technological power in the world if our engineers had spent all their time marching and giving speeches. But in the present situation, we must reconsider our priorities. Most thinking people have come to agree that it is not acceptable to allow the forces of globalization and free trade to operate without constraint. In the resulting outburst of activities by diverse groups, engineers must take their rightful place.
In a series of essays, Russel C. Jones, past dean, university president, and executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, along with professor Bethany S. Oberst, have proposed that the engineering profession address the problem by recognizing companies for meritorious employment practices, and steering engineers away from companies that treat their employees in a nonprofessional way. In this endeavor, they suggest, the major U.S. engineering societies are the only voices that can effectively take on this task on behalf of the profession.
These organizations could not only take the lead in urging meritorious employment practices, but also in lobbying in Washington, and generally working to protect the interests of the engineering profession. Unfortunately, less than half of U.S. engineers are members of any professional society. Also, only a small percentage bother to obtain state licenses-mostly civil engineers who require such credentials to obtain approvals of plans from local government agencies. The organizational and credentialing traditions that are so well established in other professions-notably medicine and law-are not available to serve the American engineer in this hour of need.
If effective action is not taken, the exploitation and disillusionment of engineers will increase, and-one must say it in hushed tones since most engineering leaders consider the notion unethical-some engineers will inevitably give serious thought to joining labor unions. In January 2000, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, representing more than 22,000 engineers, scientists, and professional employees at Boeing, joined with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in calling a six-week strike against Boeing. At issue: benefits, wages, and a voice in company affairs. The event captured the attention of many engineers in many lines of work.
I hope that the current difficulties concerning outsourcing and visas will be mitigated through a combination of good sense, good will, and wholesome political contention. But we can see that similar problems will have to be dealt with again and again into the indefinite future. Engineers will have no choice but to confront these dilemmas, mainly by group action. However, individual efforts will also play an important role. These will include such obvious activities as using one’s voting rights diligently and with intelligence. And there are also many other important but less obvious activities-such as writing angry letters to The Wall Street Journal.