Making the Old New Again

May 2014

Making the Old New Again


EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR MARK J. GOLDENLast month, NSPE President Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPE, made the case that we face only two choices: change or be changed. There can be no argument about that. General Eric Shinseki, when he was US Army Chief of Staff, said it even more bluntly. Charged with transforming the Army from traditional field units into mobile and flexible forces that could be effectively deployed in urban terrain, he answered critics of his innovative and controversial proposals: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

When I first came to NSPE, a little over a year ago, the organization was already deeply engaged in its own program of change. The board, and indeed the entire membership, had been invited into a process for identifying a focus for NSPE in the 21st century and then radically reordering and concentrating resources. The ongoing process of strategic thinking and strategic action that Robert discussed in these pages last month was well on its way.

NSPE’s initiative was modeled on a book, Race for Relevance. It is a bestseller in the association community. Coincidentally, I had worked with both of its authors before I came to NSPE; indeed, I still have a copy of their prepublication manuscript on my Kindle and facilitated their first seminar to present the book’s content in April 2011.

Race for Relevance (and its sequel, Road to Relevance) describes a commitment to fundamental change—and not just in the words of a plan that sounds exciting but is never put into action. The road to relevance was something that NSPE was pursuing with vigor, seriousness of purpose, openness, and transparency. That was something I wanted to be a part of.

In addition to rereading Race for Relevance, my early months at NSPE were taken up with a second book: Building for Professional Growth: A History of the National Society of Professional Engineers (1934–1984). This one was authored by NSPE’s first Executive Director, Paul Robbins. I read it as part of my orientation to my new organization, while simultaneously jumping into the ongoing task force activities of NSPE’s race for relevance and the Society’s business of change.

Robbins’ book brought home an equally important aspect of the organization’s commitment to change: making what was old…but still valued…new again.

NSPE was created at a time when professional licensure, where it existed at all, was weak, inconsistent, and not respected. By the time NSPE reached its 25th anniversary, all 50 states had licensure laws. Since then, this three-tiered organization has worked tirelessly at the national, state, and local levels to strengthen and improve the license. It has striven to ensure that the future ranks of PEs were filled with competent, ethical, and creative minds, and that PEs had the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to practice profitably.

NSPE also served a unique and integral role, unifying the engineering profession across all technical disciplines under the banner of PE licensure. Rather than focusing on engineering’s many disciplines and differences, NSPE focused on what all engineers have in common, across all fields. This enabled us to provide a more coherent process for giving the public and key decision-makers (such as lawmakers and regulators) a better understanding of engineering as a profession and the vital role that professional engineers play in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare. And the Society, at all levels, has worked consistently to promote awareness and respect for the PE license ever since.

Over the course of nearly a century, the threats to the integrity and credibility of licensure and the profession have changed dramatically and frequently. So, too have the economic, social, societal, educational, and technological realities with which NSPE members must contend as they carry out their work.

Today, you can’t influence the US Congress in this politically fractured, high-speed, constant-communications world using the tools of influence from the 1900s, or even the 1990s.

You can’t reach, engage, and meet the needs of young engineers starting their careers today with the forms of education, communications, or service that worked decades ago.

So, must everything change if we are to avoid the irrelevance that General Shinseki warned about? To be sure, much had changed for Shinseki’s forces, such as strategies, weaponry, forms of combat and the nature of the enemy. But something vital remained the same: It was what the US Army was fighting to preserve, protect, and pass on to future generations. That never changed.

NSPE is keeping the vow it made to the profession 80 years ago. But in order to do so, we are not relying upon 1930s technology, infrastructure, or ideas. We are paving new roads, designing new types of vehicles, and tapping in to new resources to fuel our journey—things that our members never could have imagined when the Society took form.

In short, we are willing to change anything and everything, except the principles and values upon which the Society has always been based.

The old is being made new again. Which breathes new life into timeless ideals.

For more on NSPE’s Race for Relevance and to read the Statement of Strategic Direction, go to