End of an Era?
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
When NSPE was founded in 1934, professional engineering services were provided using simple drafting tools, while competition to offer these services was limited locally and regionally. Since that time, technological and societal advancements have revolutionized the role of the professional engineer. And that role is about to evolve again. Under the leadership of NSPE President Kodi Verhalen, P.E., Esq., F.NSPE, the Society looks to take on a major role in preparing the licensed engineering profession to retool and remain pertinent as even more innovation and changes in societal expectations are certain to come the profession’s way.
NSPE is no stranger to addressing societal, technological, and economic shifts. The Society focused on reinvigorating the organization using five key changes outlined by authors Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers in their book Race for Relevance. The work of seven task forces involving nearly 100 members from 41 states led to the implementation of a strategic action plan in 2014 that ensures that NSPE is a future-focused and responsive organization.
“The Race for Relevance was concentrated on our own operations and what we were doing as a Society to make sure we were a leaner, meaner, member-driven, forward-focused machine,” says Verhalen. “We now owe it to our profession to make sure that we are also identifying ways in which our members can be on the forefront as technology and the world [are] changing around them.”
This time around, the book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts will provide the framework for an NSPE task force charged with determining how the profession can proactively embrace innovation and meet client needs and expectations. Father and son authors Richard and Daniel Susskind believe that an evolving technology-based society is driving the change that will fundamentally alter how the professions distribute their expertise. The authors posit that the current state of professional practice is nearing an end with regard to both the identities of service providers and the nature of how that service is delivered. For engineers and architects to doctors and lawyers, there is no escape from the change on the horizon. The end of this era, the Susskinds say, will be characterized by four trends: the move from customized services; the bypassing of traditional gatekeepers; a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to professional work; and the more-for-less challenge.
Another change that the professions will be experiencing is the rise of new business models. The Susskinds note that current business models work under the notion that the time of a professional is at the heart of that service or project. That model is going to be more a thing of the past as economic shifts and pressures will increase client demand for paying for services based on output and value. The Susskinds warn of a strong inclination by some members of a profession to resist this change and cling to the status quo. More veteran professionals, they note, may hold onto the hope that this transformation won’t happen until after they retire, while talent that could replace exiting professionals may seek other career options.
Adam Stodola, P.E., chair of the NSPE Task Force on the Future of the Profession, believes that professional engineers are going to have to get used to the idea that they can no longer conduct business as usual. “That may include taking a look at other professions and how they are changing,” says the past president of the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers. “We want to try to plot a new course for moving forward.”
Verhalen and Stodola began the process by gathering input from members of the House of Delegates during the recent Professional Engineers Conference in Dallas. They will take concepts from the book and recommendations from the HOD Caucus and blend them. “We are dedicated to figuring out how we need to change so we are ahead of the game,” says Stodola, a project manager at Garver, an engineering, planning, and environmental services firm.
A Changing Environment
Change is inevitable, and NSPE is committed to helping professional engineers stay relevant within this evolving environment, says Verhalen. For example, the Society released the first edition of the Professional Engineering Body of Knowledge in 2013. It outlined the depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, and attitudes appropriate to enter practice as a professional engineer in responsible charge of engineering activities that potentially impact public health, safety, and welfare. The Professional Engineering BOK laid the groundwork for the creation of the Engineering Competency Model, which was developed by the American Association of Engineering Societies and the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to provide employers and engineers with guidance on the core competencies and skills necessary to enter the engineering profession.
Most recently, NSPE has taken on a leadership role by working on multiple fronts to promote and protect the public safety in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technologies. In an effort to foster ethical innovation, the Society is taking action to give professional engineers a leading voice in ensuring that the same attention to safety and reliability that goes into the built transportation infrastructure is incorporated into autonomous vehicles and smart transportation systems.
The Task Force on the Future of the Profession will continue this focus by identifying key issues that offer real-world examples of how the professional environment is changing and determine how professional engineers and NSPE can be responsive, says Verhalen. As the task force works through its charges, four key questions posed by the Susskinds will serve as a guide:
- Might there be entirely new ways of organizing professional work—ways that are more affordable, more accessible, and perhaps more conducive to an increase in quality than the traditional approach?
- If we concede that humans are indispensable in professional work, does it follow that all the work professionals currently do can be undertaken only by licensed experts?
- To what extent do we trust professionals to admit that their services could be delivered differently or that some of their work could be responsibly passed along to nonprofessionals?
- Is the traditional arrangement granting special status to the professions actually working? Are professionals fit for purpose and are they serving our societies well?
Identifying new ways to deliver professional engineering services is becoming more of a challenge, admits Verhalen. As new technologies emerge, professional engineers are also constantly thinking about how to best leverage these technologies to support their clients. “For instance, there is a constant need to trim costs and efficiently use resources. We want to help clients understand what ‘efficiently using resources’ means,” she says. “It may not mean using the lowest-cost resource, but it may mean using the highest-cost resource for less [billable] time.”
Champions of the PE
Another critical part of NSPE’s mission involves educating the public about the PE’s role and encouraging more engineering talent to become licensed. On August 3, the Society kicked off the first annual Professional Engineers Day to increase awareness and appreciation of PEs through a mostly social media event that had participation from NSPE members, partner organizations, engineering firms, engineering schools, and even the general public.
The task force plans to build on the Society’s initiatives in this area to reinforce and develop the message of why engineers should pursue licensure as well as why organizations should hire PEs, says Stodola.
Are there any barriers to this effort? An increase in specialization within the professions is a pattern the Susskinds believe will also have an effect on how various professions change the way they provide services in the future. The authors point out that there is a great concern with some professions that increasing specialization may hinder multidisciplinary collaboration, and these increasing divisions may weaken a sense of community within those professions.
NSPE believes that fragmenting the license into discipline-specific title or practice acts weakens rather than strengthens its integrity (NSPE Position Statement No.1775). While NSPE actively opposes attempts to enact local, state, or federal legislation or rules that would mandate discipline-specific licensure or certification in lieu of or beyond licensure, the Society recognizes that a qualified engineering professional may pursue additional discipline-specific designations after obtaining a PE license.
Learning From Other Professions
Verhalen brings a unique perspective to the discussion about the changing professions. She is a PE, but she works as an attorney. Changes in the legal profession are putting some long practicing attorneys on edge, she says. According to a report from the Georgetown University Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, since the Great Recession there has been a fundamental and irreversible change in the legal services market. Clients have more control over how services are delivered, insisting on more efficiency, predictability, and cost effectiveness. Additionally, clients are bringing more legal work in-house and gravitating toward nontraditional service providers. In response, points out the 2015 report, law firms have responded by participating in competitive selection processes and responding to client demands for alternative fee structures.
As an attorney serving engineering clients, Verhalen knows that professional engineers are also experiencing changes in the way they provide services. Advances in design technology (such as building information modeling systems and 3D technology systems), autonomous technology, mobile device technology, and globalization have greatly changed how engineers provide expertise to projects.
What can professional engineers learn from other professions? “We need to make sure that we aren’t doing this with blinders on or over-engineering what we’re doing,” says Verhalen. “If [other professions] are changing how they provide services, people will start to expect that of us, especially if it’s going well in those other professions.”
Engineers, lawyers, accountants, and architects must also recognize their particular role in a process, says Verhalen, understanding why clients need their services. “Is it because someone has a certain number of years of experience as an engineer, or do they want someone who thinks outside of the box and who is willing to approach things differently, or both,” she asks. “Or is it a very discreet task that they want to accomplish and they need very specific expertise for that task?”
Verhalen adds, “I want to see how NSPE can provide some services and education to our members to target those key issues as they come up so that our members can be at the top of their game and provide the best services to their clients and employers.”
Read NSPE Executive Director Mark Golden’s outlook on the NSPE Task Force for the Future of the Profession.