The Future of the Engineering Profession Is in Our Hands

Summer 2021

NSPE Today: Outlook
The Future of the Engineering Profession Is in Our Hands

BY RICK GUERRA, P.E., F.NSPE, PRESIDENT 2021–22

Rick Guerra, P.E., F.NSPE, President 2021–22

As I begin my term as your NSPE president, my mind is continually drawn to the many opportunities and challenges that the engineering profession will face as we enter a very exciting, but unknown future. By highlighting a few of these here, I hope to bring you into the conversation so that together we can begin to shape an even brighter tomorrow for our noble profession.

Engineering Workforce Pipeline

In the US right now, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and the 65-and-over population will nearly double over the next three decades. Nearly 19,000 engineers, many still in the workforce, will turn 69 each year for the next 15 years. No matter your organization, you are undoubtably feeling the impact of our aging engineering population and the knowledge gap that is being created as baby boomers retire.

Filling the void will require us to develop a more diverse pipeline, while also retaining women and minorities in our profession. Eliminating barriers and building a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all capable and qualified engineers is vitally important for the continued growth of our profession and our ability to meet the ever-increasing demands of the future.

Compounding the workforce issues created by our aging and retiring population, is an increased demand for engineers. According to the Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, while other occupations are growing at less than 10%. Clearly, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers play a key role in the growth and stability of the US economy. To thrive in the future, the engineering profession must continue to promote STEM education and draw the best and brightest of our youth to our industry.

Climate Change

Climate change and the associated demand for resilient infrastructure are creating new opportunities for engineers to innovate. Last February’s catastrophic winter storm in my home state of Texas and the devastation caused by our failing infrastructure was yet another stark reminder of the need for the engineering community to engage more deeply in the challenges brought about by our changing climate. Severe drought, a record-breaking 2020 hurricane season, and frequent sunny day flooding are further examples that demand innovative problem solving from our profession.

The engineering community could be transformed by the way it responds to the dynamics of climate change and the threat it poses to our world. As stewards of the natural and built environments, engineers have both an opportunity and an obligation to apply our unique skills to develop solutions, facilitate communication, foster collaboration, drive innovation, and shape climate change public policy.

Engineering Licensure

For more than 100 years now, the public health, safety, and welfare in the built environment has been unquestionably enhanced by the protections provided through our engineering licensure laws. Although our existing licensure system has served us well over the years, recent and persistent legislative, economic, and technological trends have exposed shortcomings.

As we move toward a more global economy and respond to the effects of a global pandemic, the mobility of our workforce is becoming increasingly important. The demand for enhanced interstate practice is readily apparent. Our current licensure model, while providing for the protection of public health, safety, and welfare in each individual state, lacks the uniformity needed to accommodate the mobility demands of today’s engineering workforce and the growing need for interstate practice.

Our licensing system is also weakened by exemptions that place certain individuals and organizations outside of that system. These exemptions undermine the intended purpose of engineering licensure and can lead to inadequate protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.

At the same time, the speed of technological advancement is outpacing our ability to protect the public from the risks associated with new and emerging technologies. To date, much of the discussion of emerging technologies has been about their capabilities and perceived public benefit, but many questions remain unanswered, especially regarding ethics.

In the future, regulation of engineering practice will need to be:

  • Well Defined—so there is no question about the role of engineers in the betterment of our world and the protection of the public health, safety and welfare;
  • Comprehensive—to include all engineering work;
  • Flexible—to allow for a mobile workforce and for new disciplines and technologies;
  • Nimble—to respond to changes that are occurring at an ever-increasing rate; and
  • Evolving—to remain relevant and effective in a changing world.

Our profession’s future belongs to those who will follow in our footsteps. As we go about our daily lives as professional engineers, we must remember that the legacy that we build today will either compel or discourage future generations of problem solvers and innovators from joining our engineering ranks. Together we can shape the profession’s future. I hope that you will join us as we continue the conversation and work to make the profession even better for those who will follow us.