We certainly live in turbulent times. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, every aspect of our personal and professional lives faces disruption. The potentials within those forces are grounds for a sense of optimism and opportunity; however, they also contain potential threats, sometimes leading to a feeling of loss of control over our own futures and a dismaying sense of uncertainty.
Technology continues to advance at a dizzying rate of speed, and often the growth in what technology can do seems to outpace the thought given to how it ought to be used.
What it means to be a professional (in engineering and other learned professions) is undergoing similar changes and disruption. The PE license is increasingly under threat, in danger of being swept away by a deregulatory zeal that forgets the high stakes if no one in the decision-making chain has a primary obligation to public health, safety, and welfare, not profit or a calendar deadline.
It was like that in the early years of the last century as well, when David Steinman took time away from his (considerable) accomplishments as an engineer to define the engineering profession, establish licensure as a national norm, and create NSPE. And I am always impressed by how much of his core principles remain relevant today.
I was reminded of this earlier this year when I came across an article Steinman wrote in 1936: “A Creed: Cardinal Principles of NSPE.”
The language is a little dated (including inherent, if unconscious, bias in pronoun usage, which, although universal in his day, would not be acceptable in our own). And although the specific social, regulatory, and technical forces facing engineering and the larger society then were different than the ones we face today, Steinman’s “25 tenets of guidance” still apply in 2017.
Take 13 and 14, for example: “a profession must be integrated. Technical societies are organized on the basis of dividing the profession into branches and specialties. The National Society of Professional Engineers is organized on the principle of uniting all Engineers as members of one profession.... The technical problems of Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical and Mining engineers are divergent, but the Professional problems are alike.”
Increases in the degree of specialization and technical complexity within engineering, along with engineering’s expansion beyond the built environment into software and increasingly autonomously controlled systems and infrastructure has, if anything, increased the danger of engineers losing sight of what they have shared in common since Steinman’s day.
Or number 15: “For handling local problems of legislation and public relations, the State Society…has been demonstrated to be the most effective form of Professional organization.”
State societies were Steinman’s foundation to accomplish his goal of licensure in every state and territory. That’s why he worked so hard to organize and unite the state societies that existed in the 1930s and to start state societies where none yet existed. That’s why NSPE (national) and its state partners have worked so hard over the past year to explore a new model of collaboration between the national organization and state societies, which will be voted on by the House of Delegates in Atlanta this July, and offers the promise of revitalizing the national-state partnership.
Number 16: “For mutual inspiration, increased effectiveness and national accomplishment, the State Society of Professional Engineers must be United in a national organization. The National Society of Professional Engineers is the established means for welding together the State Societies in united purpose, effort, and achievement and for extending the professional program on a national scale.”
Steinman recognized then—and it remains as true today—that no matter how strong a state society might be, it alone is insufficient unless integrated within a national network of equal partners. Weakness or harm experienced anywhere in the system exacts a toll upon every element of the profession.
Sadly, many state societies today face serious economic pressures that compromise their effectiveness and, in some cases, threaten their very existence. The proposed membership and integrated partnership model was specifically developed to address the operational problems posed by declining resources, inefficiencies, and redundancy. By matching resources and the division of labor between national and the state societies to each state’s capacity and needs, we can ensure a consistent level and quality of membership value, regardless of where the member resides.
Number 17: “The Engineering Profession needs to be defined, organized, and integrated…. It is integrated by perfecting the interlocking of the National, State, and County units so that every member of one shall be a member of all.”
Therein lies the shared mission of NSPE and its partner state societies: defending, defining, and advancing what it means to be a professional engineer, championing the PE license, standing as the ethical guide for the profession, powering professional advancement, and uniting the PE community.
Number 18: “For every man is a debtor to his Profession.… Through membership and active participation in this organization, the individual Engineer renders his contribution toward making Engineering a greater, nobler and more satisfying Profession than he found it.”
Sure, it is possible to set your horizon no higher than your state borders, to concern yourself with nothing more than your own interests, and to enjoy the benefits and opportunities created by the efforts of others, without contributing to them yourself. But you—and the profession—will be the poorer for it.
Published August 7, 2017 by Mark J. Golden, CAE, FASAE