Reforming Engineering Education

The “Value-Added” Approach to Engineering Education: An Industry Perspective

Like it or not, the routine, repetitive aspects of engineering are priced as commodities.

I can’t help but notice that I am the only speaker in this section of the program without a Ph.D. I can only assume that I am a part of the diversity initiative Bill Wulf has referred to. I’m the token B.S. degree. For those of you who have heard Bill Wulf and others talk about the declining enrollment of U.S. students in engineering, and the decline in the already anemic enrollment of women and minorities, there is little need for me to repeat either the statistics or the potential consequences.

I speak neither as a scientist nor a researcher. My business is designing and building things, things like the smokestack industries along the Gulf Coast that are all reducing production and increasing prices as a result of the hurricanes. Although I understand and agree with concerns about the declining population of Ph.D.s for both research and academia, my business, and the businesses of many engineering/construction companies like mine, is largely populated by graduates who are down a notch on the degree scale. But the issues are largely the same.

Given recent trends in business, we should really be asking why anyone thinks that enrollment wouldn’t decline. In broad generalities, we might say that an aspiring engineer’s mind is structured, orderly, somewhat innovative, precise, and, according to most spouses, predictable. In the past—even the recent past—many careers in engineering were also largely stable, relatively orderly, and somewhat predictable. It was not unusual for an engineer at retirement age to have only one, two, or maybe three employers listed on his r?sum? for an entire career.

Today, however, when young people look at the recent past—and they do—they see that stability in engineering employment is rare—even in companies with household names that prided themselves for generations on the stability of their engineering workforce. In the past, many took pride in saying they had never laid off an engineer.

Today, they frequently do. Downsizing, or “rightsizing,” depending on your point of view, is a fact of life for most employers, even for the dot coms. But it is not just domestic downsizing that raises concerns among both young and older engineers. Although the projects, the contracts, and the need for engineers still exist, and are even increasing, many work-hours are now routinely shifted to lower cost engineering centers overseas where engineering firms charge a fraction of the U.S. rate. And these firms have employees with good technical educations—often obtained here in the United States. They also have adequate language skills and a seemingly never-ending supply.

Young people trying to decide on an educational path can quickly see this, and they question the value of pursuing a rigorous engineering education. In addition, women and minority students see a profession that has not welcomed them as readily as other professions, such as law, medicine, and finance.

The question, of course, is how educators and those of us in the business world can meet this challenge. If we continue to build facilities in North America, we must design and build them at competitive global prices. Neither we nor our clients can ignore the large premium we pay for a project done in the United States, even if only the detail engineering is done here. Whether we want to admit it or not, the routine, repetitive aspects of engineering have become commoditized and are being priced as a commodity, not as a profession. And that trend will not go away. Indeed, it is likely to increase. Today there are few major global engineering firms that do not have offshore engineering partners.

So, how do we become the sought-after technology center of the world? How do we move our engineering graduates up the ladder of project deliverables so that they and engineering business owners don’t have to compete on a dollar-per-hour rate that will ultimately destroy our standard of living and puts us in a competition we will ultimately lose?

In personal terms, it comes down to what courses I advise my seven-year-old son to study if he wants to be an engineer, and if I want his lifestyle to be at least as good as mine. For generations, immigrants to the United States had two goals for their children: (1) to get a good education and (2) to make certain that the children would have a better life than their parents. Today, although I am not an immigrant, I have the same first goal for my son, but I am not sure he will have a better life than I have.

We have to change what we expect from engineers, and we have to turn out graduates with broader skills, interests, and abilities. With the commoditizing of basic design engineering and the migration of that function overseas, the traditional training ground for recent graduates is no longer available in the United States. Young engineers now have to move up to design leader and managerial positions much faster. The learning curve is getting steeper.

When I hire someone today, I look for different skills than I did 10 years ago. Today, it is not unusual for good candidates to have global references and experience on projects and assignments around the world. I think we must prepare our graduates for that type of career, because they aren’t likely to spend their careers working in one company, or even in one country. And they must become advisors, consultants, managers, and conceptual planners much more quickly than they did a few years back.

We cannot ignore the large
premium we pay for projects
done in the United States.

This is true even for my business in the smokestack industries. Today, I need Georgia Tech, the University of Texas, and other educational institutions to turn out graduates who are mature and have more than professional engineering skills. I need graduates who know something about working with others—not just teamwork, which is a given—but a basic understanding that our culture is not the only one around. I need graduates who can speak before an audience to make a point, either to me or to a client. Comfortable or not, engineers today are constantly selling—selling an idea, a concept, a study, an alternative, or just the need for a new document-control system.

Engineers must be prepared to write reports, studies, or routine business letters better than most can today. I have largely given up on teaching engineers to write succinctly, concisely, and clearly. I am tired of cite, sight, and site being used interchangeably. I used to send my engineers to classes, but now I have a report review team of English majors. And the situation has gotten worse with the advent of e-mail. Now we don’t even write in complete sentences.

But, most important, I want employees who can analyze—analyze problems, situations, ramifications, upside and downside, near-term and long-term effects. The ability to analyze is a defining quality of new hires and of the employees I retain. I want my employees to ask the next questions: “Why is that so? Are you sure? What fact is that based on?”

The ability to analyze is a
defining quality of new hires
and of the employees I retain.

I think our legal colleagues have a better grounding in asking questions than engineers. With the increased use of the computer, we seem to have gotten lazy about asking the next question. If the printout says something is so, it must be so. Today, when I have a sticky problem or controversy, I frequently bring an attorney into the discussion—not because it’s a legal matter, but because the lawyer will usually ask one or two questions to peel back another layer of the onion. Somehow, we need to incorporate this trait into engineering education.

In fact, I think we started losing our inquisitiveness when we stopped using the slide rule. With the slide rule, we got an answer, but we always had to check the rationale of the decimal point. Today the computer gives us the decimal point and three more digits, even if we’re predicting next year’s national debt.

Ultimately, the goal is to move our engineering deliverables up a notch on the chart. The routine and the repetitious have either gone or will go overseas, and we will soon be largely out of the detail design business as well. Today, we must manage the process—not do it.

The weaknesses in this scenario are obvious. First, I have been assuming that we can move basic engineering design functions upstream, following the path of large accounting firms that have set up business consulting divisions staffed largely by a few seasoned veterans and many young engineers and business majors with minimal experience. Whether that can work in a design context is, at least, questionable, but we must face the reality that the traditional training incubator for young engineers has largely disappeared and is moving offshore.

Second, my scenario assumes that offshore engineering firms will continue to do basic design but not migrate toward doing total project work. Given that there are still many aspects of a project that require boots on the ground before we get to the design phase, this should be more difficult to outsource. The aftermath of Katrina is a good example of this need. But with advances in computer-aided design (CAD) and laser technology, on-site vision and measurements may no longer be necessary. The need for experienced, gray-haired veterans who can head off the interferences and clashes of components has been minimized by CAD programs.

We are facing a long-term challenge. The better our technology, the less need there may be for us to do engineering design here at home. We must prepare our sons and daughters to be global engineering citizens of the world.

This will require changes in many of the engineering courses of study that we have traditionally valued. We must spend more time educating our graduates to be adaptable to the knowledge base that exists in other parts of the world. We must spend more learning time on developing inquisitive minds that can bear down on the pros and cons of a concept rather than providing calculations for a specific facet of a project.

We must all learn to translate our ideas and basic plans into reality for cultures that may not look, sound, or dress the way we do. Unless we can do that, a large part of our engineering business will soon leave our shores.

About the Author: Theodore C. Kennedy, founder of BE&K Inc. and an NAE member, delivered these remarks on October 10, 2005, during the NAE Annual Meeting.