It seems that engineering needs a makeover. Well, perhaps makeover is the wrong word. The field of engineering, as represented by the National Academy of Engineering, would like to change the way the public perceives it. The report on the NAE website, written by Mitch Baranowski and James Delorey, addresses marketing techniques that can be used to improve public perception of engineering.
The casual reader might wonder why the NAE is pushing for a change at all. Are engineers sick of being seen as geeky introverts? It turns out that geekiness is not the problem. According to Baranowski and Delorey, the public generally perceives that successful engineering is based on good math and science skills and hard work. Additionally, engineering is seen as a creative field that makes a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives by allowing for the designing, building, and constructing of things. This seems to be both an accurate and fairly positive view of engineering. Thus, it gives little insight into why the field would require a different image.
The big issue, according to the report, is that young people do not display an interest in engineering. In part, the authors postulate, this results from the under-appreciation of the important work that engineers have done in the past and continue to do. Additionally, there is no famous personality to associate with the field. This is not shocking, but public perception of scientists is surprisingly positive in comparison. While over half the population from a 2004 survey shown in the report considered scientists to be “sav[ing] lives,” “sensitive to societal concerns,” and “car[ing] about the community,” well under half of the population felt the same way about engineers. In fact, as shown in the report, the prestige of scientists rates under just 3 other listed professions (firefighter, doctor, and nurse). However, engineering is 10th on the list, below priest and farmer. Engineering, like certain physical sciences, has a particularly difficult time recruiting “under-represented” populations. If science is seen as much more prestigious, promising candidates from under-represented groups may become scientists rather than engineers. More critically, the NAE expresses concern that there will not be enough engineers someday soon.
I am always dubious when a field aims to to “hook” young people using marketing. Doesn’t marketing gloss over the unpleasant truth to make the targeted career seem great? What happens when someone enters that field believing the illusions presented by clever marketers? It’s possible that some people will be “hooked” who do not have the abilities or skills necessary to perform adequately in that career. Others might leave once they become disillusioned with a career that is not what they thought it would be. According to Baranowski and Delorey, these are some of the flaws that exist in messages that have been presented to children and perspective college students in the past. A major theme has been that math and science (the requisite skills to be come an effective engineer) are fun and easy, which is, at best, true for only a small percentage of the population. The other major theme has been that engineering is an exciting career with many options and much flexibility. This is the sort of message that is likely to lead to worn out, disillusioned young engineers.
Instead, the report suggests that the message should focus on the necessity of engineering and what engineers do in an abstract sense. In this vein, the two tag-lines presented are “because dreams need doing” and “turning ideas into reality.” These themes seem harmless enough, especially when considered alongside the recommendation to avoid trivializing the necessity and potential difficulty of obtaining adequate math and science skills. Perhaps I need to be less suspicious of career marketing.
On the other hand, the outsourcing of engineering work has become a real concern. If other countries produce enough engineers to do the work at much lower prices, perhaps it is a mistake to encourage young people to go into engineering. If the field is likely to have lower wages and more competition for jobs, more engineers will just make the problem more severe. This question was addressed in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently in the article, “Holistic Engineering” by Dominico Grasso and David Martinelli. Grasso and Martinelli argue that producing an interdisciplinary sort of engineer who focuses on broad, unified knowledge, rather than engineering detail, could solve this problem. The idea is that “21st century engineer[s]” could outsource some detail-oriented, highly technical tasks while focusing on the broader problem at hand. These new engineers would draw on knowledge from fields as diverse as religion and literature in addition to the sciences. They could develop better, more visionary solutions by unifying their diverse knowledge and applying it to engineering problems.
Unfortunately Grasso and Martinelli do not give specific details on how a university or college might educate and train such an engineer, nor do they give a clear idea of what sort of solutions might be found. The interesting point, to me, is the concurrence of the article on the holistic engineer with the report calling for a new image for engineering. Perhaps the kind of engineer Grasso and Marinelli call for is the sort of engineer Baranowski and Delorey are trying to recruit. While I remain a little skeptical of marketing the field of engineering and unclear on what exactly a holistic engineer could do or how to train her, I am intrigued by the future of engineering that might arise from such changes to the field.