Some Thoughts on the Engineering Profession

This is a very old piece, dating from the late 1990’s, which I am reposting on this site.  It’s still relevant for a number of reasons, not the least of which to address an issue that became a hot topic in the following decade: the concept that science and religion are mortal enemies and mutually exclusive.  The article is the same, except I’ve modified the opening paragraph and deleted the closing link to reflect the fact that it has been moved.

Most of my family business website is devoted to the wave equation as it is applied to piling, the equipment used to install the piling and other related topics. This article takes a look at some broader issues that affect engineers and their profession. Having worked in engineering for over twenty years, and having also taken on some activities outside of the profession, I realize that there are some things that need some broader consideration than they usually get.

As things stand in the U.S. today, engineering — which I know to be a great and honourable profession — is in a state of crisis. This isn’t of itself unusual; in times that change as rapidly as they do, just about everything in life is in a state of crisis. Technical journals lament the fact that the work involved in becoming an engineer, coupled with the legal risks associated with the practice of engineering (especially in construction centred civil engineering) isn’t adequately compensated by the income an engineer can reasonably expect during a career of practice. They do this while advocating the addition of a master’s degree as the first degree of practice (a step that is probably a necessity, albeit an unfortunate one.) Looking at the compensation and stature in society given to doctors and attorneys (grudgingly in the latter case) compared to that of engineers makes one sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. Many obviously don’t think so; engineering not only has difficulty attracting women and minorities to the profession in the U.S., it struggles to get its native sons to look at it as a career.

Part of the problem is an inheritance from the ancien régime division of labour in society, something we inherited not only from the French (before their revolution) but from that last great ancien régime society of Europe, the United Kingdom. In such a scenario there were three classes (or estates) of society; those who prayed (the clergy,) those who fought (the nobility,) and the rest of us who worked to support the other two. Needless to say the last group, although essential to the success of the other two, wasn’t quite up to par with them in esteem. A carryover of this can be seen in our own society which, although technologically oriented as any, is still pretty much run by its attorneys (the keepers of the law) and its managers and administrators (business and government,) neither of which are very technical about much of anything.

But it would otiose to blame everything on others; part of the problem is with ourselves. Putting the perennial PR problem aside, the root problem is that engineers are by nature too narrowly focused on a purely technical view of things to “lift up their eyes” (to use a Biblical expression) and take the broad view not only of the world around them but their potential role in it. This is not to say that engineers are the uncaring, unfeeling automatons they are caricatured to be; they are not. But we really tend to be boresighted about a lot of things when it would pay us to expand our perspective. Such a disposition is reinforced by the educational system, which tends to crowd out other studies to fulfil the necessities of a complete technical curriculum.

I have had to struggle with this as much as anyone; however, for me there have been two factors that have mitigated a narrow focus to a large degree.

The first is my interaction with the family business, both in growing up and in the time I spent there. My decision to go in to the business came relatively late in high school; my education up to that point had been heavily weighted towards the liberal arts. When I arrived at Texas A&M, I discovered that I was in the company of engineering students, most of whom had been technically focused through JETS, technical hobbies and other activities leading up to entering the College of Engineering. I managed to make the transition well but my perspective remained different. Moreover in the years at Vulcan I spent a lot of time dealing with financial, legal, personnel and other non-technical matters. They used to allow engineers in the U.S. to be licensed “by eminence,” i.e, without the educational requirements but based on experience and performance. It’s too bad they don’t admit lawyers to the bar that way, or I’d be totally bivocational!

But the other, and certainly more powerful, force in my life that make me look at things differently was my Christian faith and my relationship to Jesus Christ. This in turn led to my activities in the church and other Christian organizations. These, coupled with study of the Bible, let me to realize three important things.

  • People are most important. Christ came to redeem people, not things or even institutions. If our activity is not centred around the needs of people, we have missed the most important thing.
  • People have problems that do not always admit straightforward, “clean” solutions. This was especially driven home when I spent a lot of time at a Christian coffeehouse ministry that was also a counselling centre. Although Jesus Christ is the solution for people’s problems, implementing that with hurting people on a daily basis takes caring and love.
  • The study of engineering was helpful in my Christian walk in that it emphasized absolutes. Sooner or later it is necessary to take a stand somewhere. Engineering also reinforced an ethic of personal integrity and “dealing in reality,” which is important in the development of real Christian character.

Being a Christian has forced me to focus on realities that are not purely technical in nature, yet which represent real human needs that must be addressed. This has broadened my outlook and hopefully made things better for others too. Technology is intrinsically morally neutral; it is what we do with it, and with ourselves as well, that makes the difference.

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