Where are the Engineers?

 

November 2012

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
Where are the Engineers?

BY ROBERT GREEN, P.E., F.NSPE

Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPEOver the last several weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion of the economy, health care, and all of the ills of politics. The national elections always seem to pit one ideology against another, focus on the negatives, and the process does not seem attractive to outsiders. If a poll were to be taken of engineers on their willingness to take part in the political process—other than to vote—the results would likely overwhelmingly oppose participation. We must change that.
 
This attitude, while understandable, is not one we should hold as engineers. Our primary concern is the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public, and this obligation extends beyond the immediate projects we oversee. We have an obligation to ensure there are qualified professional engineers to replace us as we retire. We are obligated to ensure policy is set based on sound technical grounds while also accounting for the societal factors. One of the greatest skills we engineers develop is the ability to think critically and take a systems approach to solving problems. Does it not stand to reason that these skills need to be applied to our so-called social issues as well?
 
A Needed Voice
Taking action to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is vital to the profession of engineering yet where are the engineers? If we abrogate our role and responsibility on this front, we will relegate it to others. Those currently involved in setting STEM policy are well intentioned, and many are very capable, but this is a forum in which the voices of engineers are needed. Refusing to engage in the public policy process is not in the best interest of the profession or our students.
 
Middle and high school students are increasingly less interested in math and science. As the U.S. economy is becoming even more based on technology, we are finding it more difficult to recruit these students into the engineering profession. This is not always the case with non-U.S. students, and certainly there are plenty of engineers outside of the U.S. who would like to practice here. With that said, there are national security projects that require engineers to be citizens.
 
Reversing a Trend
To address the shortage of engineers, an effort needs to be made to both increase the supply of those who have U.S. citizenship and make it easier for those who are not citizens to practice within the country. We must also make a concerted effort to find more women and ethnic minorities who have an interest and aptitude for engineering and encourage them to pursue the appropriate education.
 
Quality STEM education is not available to the number of students needed to meet the nation's and world's future engineering demand. In spite of current efforts, a recent Washington Post article indicated both SAT math and verbal scores have continued to decline. Reversing this trend is essential for the future of engineering. NSPE is currently in the final review process of a policy statement on STEM education, but it will merely state NSPEs position. In and of itself, the statement will not improve the STEM issues in the country. That will require action.
 
An Issue of Ethics
NSPE is also looking at its position on allowing foreign engineers to practice within the U.S. Of particular concern is the education in and understanding of U.S. engineering ethics. Licensing by the states will play an important role ensuring engineers subscribe to and are bound by the Code of Ethics. "Vote Here" SignYet, some in the profession may be concerned whether these engineers (who grew up in various other cultures) have the same understanding of ethics in the U.S. as those who were born and reared in this nation. One way to possibly alleviate this concern is to make exceptions for foreign engineers who were educated in this country. These engineers are likely to have an understanding of our Code of Ethics. Unfortunately, it seems that this will be debated and decided with minimal, if any, input from engineers because we choose to not get engaged with public policy.
 
There are many policy issues facing the engineering profession. The resolution of these issues will surely have an impact on the health, safety, and welfare of the public, which makes it an ethical concern for engineers. However, unless more engineers are willing to become engaged in the policy-making process at the local, state, and national levels, these issues will be decided without our input. It is not necessary that engineers run for public office, although they certainly could; it is necessary that we become involved with the process.
 
Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPE, is a member of the Legislative and Government Affairs Committee and NSPE president-elect.