In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Changing the Conversation about Engineering
June 27, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 2

The Image Problem for Engineering: An Overview

Monday, June 27, 2011

Author: Charles M. Vest

To reach our strategic goals, we must have a well educated, globally competitive workforce.

This is an age in which we are fixated on near-term issues, especially in the political domain, where immediate goals crowd out strategic goals. It has become a truism that members of Congress are in perpetual campaign mode and therefore nearly unable to make a public statement, let alone attend to public policy, without keeping at least one eye focused on the polls and making a mental calculation of voter appeal.

Our free-market system, despite its remarkable benefits, is also driven beyond reason by the impact of quarterly earnings. Indeed, a recent poll showed that 80 percent of chief financial officers of U.S. firms indicated they would be willing to cut R&D to meet the next quarter’s profit projections (Graham et al., 2005). Unhappily, all of these factors tend to make three months the natural business time scale and two years or less the natural political time scale.

This is unfortunate for both our nation and the world, because we are facing some very important long-term, strategic issues. The larger forces of macroeconomics and the global economy are driven by factors beyond quarterly reports to Wall Street, and achieving global health as the world population climbs toward nine billion will take time.

Mother Nature does not turn on a dime. She goes about her business without worrying about the next election. Her eruptions do not occur on cue, and her responses to human impacts build over decades. War and terrorism are also responses that build over decades or even centuries. We seem to have forgotten that a life well lived is not dedicated to the thrill of the moment, but to human progress and to leaving a positive legacy for our children and beyond.

The only way to move beyond the immediate and toward the strategic is to focus on widely shared goals. Surely, as citizens of this nation, we have a shared “Mega Goal” of creating and sustaining a nation with a vibrant economy, good health, security, and a good quality of life. Indeed, this is the goal, “health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world,” set forth explicitly in 1945 by Vannevar Bush in his seminal report, Science the Endless Frontier. Since then, his report has been the touchstone of science and technology policy in the United States.

The National Academies 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (NAS/NAE/IOM, 2007) is a recent example that follows in this tradition. The report was written in response to a bipartisan congressional request to identify key actions the federal government should take to “enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the 21st century.”

I hope we can begin with the assumption that all stakeholders support the Mega Goal of creating and sustaining a nation with a vibrant economy, good health, security, and a good quality of life. Next, we must identify the key stakeholders: the American public, young people, and policy makers, as well as industry and academia. Broadly speaking, leaders of industry and universities believe, as do we in the National Academy of Engineering, that to attain the Mega Goal we must have a well educated, globally competitive workforce. In particular, we must increase the quantity and diversity, and improve the quality of our engineering workforce.

Improving and Expanding the Engineering Workforce

Most of our larger companies, which are crucial for advancing and deploying technology-based products and services, face a substantial wave of retiring engineers. Perhaps even more critical is the continuing need for a new generation of bright engineers, who, like their predecessors, become innovators and entrepreneurs who push the cutting edge of technology, develop new products and services, and create and fuel the enterprises of the 21st century. Indeed, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Floyd Kwamme has defined his profession as “the search for good engineers.”

The need for young engineers is apparent when we compare the number of graduating engineers in the United States with the numbers in other nations and regions (Figure 1). Across Asia, 21 percent of university graduates earn engineering degrees. In Europe, the number is about 12.5 percent. The equivalent percentage of U.S. university graduates who earn engineering degrees is just 4.5 percent.

Figure 1

But this situation wasn’t created yesterday. It’s been going on for quite a while. So you might ask how U.S. industry has remained technologically successful. The answer is, in large part, that we have imported a substantial portion of our engineering talent from other countries. The openness of our nation, our companies, and our universities to talented engineers from around the world has traditionally been a source of strength and pride.

In fact, openness is the bedrock of our national strength. But today, it is also a vulnerability, because opportunities for rapid, professional growth are opening up in many other countries, prompting foreign-born engineers to return home after graduation rather than pursuing professional careers in this country. And, to be frank, the implementation of immigration policy and processes, and the world’s perception of openness in the United States, have suffered greatly since September 11, 2001.

Add to this that our public primary and secondary school systems are failing many of our youngsters, who, as a result, are sinking below global standards in STEM education, and we have a very big problem. The engineering workforce issue is also greatly exacerbated by the fact that more than 50 percent of students who enter universities with the intention of majoring in engineering leave the discipline before graduation (Figure 2). Thus a major, and painfully obvious part of the solution to our engineering workforce problem is making engineering education more inspiring and engaging.

Figure 2

Increasing Diversity

Increasing the diversity of our engineering workforce is also essential to achieving our Mega Goal. In the American engineering community, diversity generally connotes the inclusion and leadership of more women and underrepresented minorities. For many decades, the drive to increase diversity has been motivated by a desire to correct historical inequities and to be more fair and just. In 21st century America, these historical and ethical motivations remain strong.

However, we can no longer delay facing the diversity issue. Continuing underrepresentation and underutilization of ethnic minority groups is no longer an option. Our population is changing rapidly, and minorities, who constitute its most rapidly growing segment, now account for almost 30 percent of the population. Nevertheless, they comprise only 9.1 percent of Americans working in science and engineering occupations (NAS/NAE/IOM, 2011).

Figure 3

Despite their large numbers, only about 5 percent of our recent engineering graduates are African American, and approximately 7.5 percent are Hispanic (Figure 3). If these small percentages persist as these ethnic groups become larger and larger fractions of our population, the number of U.S. engineers will inexorably plummet.

Achieving Gender Balance

Gender balance has been attained much more rapidly in other professions than in engineering. In fact, only 1.6 percent of recent female graduates of U.S. universities are engineers. The percentage of women in the engineering workforce increased from 8.31 percent in 1995 (NSF, SESTAT, 1995) to 11.54 percent in 2006 (NSF, 2006). However, the fraction of young women pursuing engineering degrees has declined slightly since then.

Contrast this with the legal profession, where the percentage of women in the younger workforce increased from 38.99 percent in 1993 to 45.41 percent in 2010 (NALP, 2010). In health professions (dentists, medical assistants, nurses, pharmacists, and physicians) women accounted for 74.72 percent worldwide in 2000 (WHO, 2008).

Diversity and Quality

Finally, the diversity and quantity of the engineering workforce are directly related to its quality. Research clearly shows that in industry and other organizational settings, teams of individuals from diverse backgrounds consistently arrive at better solutions to problems and challenges than homogeneous teams (e.g., Page, 2007).

Changing the Conversation

So what must we change to increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of the U.S. engineering workforce, a necessary condition to meeting our Mega Goal. Above all, we have to inspire young people to take an interest in science and engineering and educate them about the opportunities engineering holds for them.

Because young people take their cues from parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and the perceptions of the general public, we must also change the public attitude toward engineering and, just as important, ensure that federal and state policy makers have a better-informed perspective on the role and importance of the national engineering enterprise. In short, all stakeholders in reaching the Mega Goal must understand the centrality of engineering to meeting our country’s 21st century goals.

Determining Perceptions

To appreciate the perception issues we face with the American public, the committee that authored the 2008 NAE report, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, first investigated available polls and studies. They found, for example, that the general public perceives that engineers, more than scientists, create economic growth, strengthen national security, and make strong leaders. However, they also believe that, compared with scientists, engineers do less to save lives, are more insensitive to social concerns, and do not care as much about their communities (Table 1).

Table 1

The data mirror the negative view of engineering held by many incoming college freshmen. When well-prepared first-year university students are asked why they do not choose to study engineering, the nearly inevitable reply is that they prefer to enter a discipline that will empower them to help others and make the world a better place. Unfortunately, this shows that engineering as a profession has done a poor job of communicating what engineers really do, why what they do is important, and why engineering is essential to facing the grand, global challenges of our times.

To supplement the Harris data and other prior efforts to understand public perceptions of engineering, the committee then commissioned a team of marketing professionals to conduct additional research. Led by the firm BBMG (one of whose principals, Mitch Baranowski, has contributed an article in this issue, p. 11), the team conducted focus groups with pre-teens, with teenagers, and with parents of teens.

This qualitative research showed, among other things, that young children have a very narrow view of the engineering profession, equating engineers with people who work on “engines.” Older students had a broader view of what engineers might do. They also knew that engineers must be good at math and science. However, many of them felt that they themselves were not intelligent enough to become engineers.

Most parents perceived engineers as smart problem solvers and thought that engineering would be a good career for their child. But they also perceived engineers to be narrowly focused on technical details rather then engaged with the social and human dimensions of engineering projects.

These findings were troubling but not at all surprising. Mostly they confirmed what the committee already suspected: the core of the problem is, at least in part, communication and image.

The Positioning Statement

Despite the best intentions of the engineering community, years of effort to create an accurate, compelling image of engineering have fallen far short of that goal. The committee’s challenge was to develop a more powerful messaging platform for engineering and to convince the engineering community at large to adopt it.

Following advice from BBMG, and taking into account its research, the committee crafted a positioning statement (Box 1) that defines how we believe engineering should be perceived and provides core messages to be delivered in every medium. The positioning statement also answers a number of key questions, such as what engineers do, who they serve, what makes engineering different from other professions, and what benefits engineering (and engineers) provide to society.


Box 1
Positioning Statement for Engineering

No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real-world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Few professions turn so many ideas into so many realities. Few have such a direct and positive effect on people’s everyday lives. We are counting on engineers and their imaginations to help us meet the needs of the 21st century.

The positioning statement is not intended to be shared verbatim with external audiences. It is much too long and clunky for that purpose. It is meant to guide the engineering profession’s decisions about how to deliver our core message.

Developing and Testing Messages

BBMG and the committee used the positioning statement to develop a number of succinct messages (Box 2) that might serve as our public face. They then rigorously tested the appeal, believability, and relevance of the messages among several thousand teens and adults through an online survey. To provide sufficient statistical power for groups currently underrepresented in engineering, the research cohort included large over-samples of African Americans and Hispanics.

Messages Tested in the Online Survey

  • Engineers make a world of difference.
  • Engineers are creative problem solvers.
  • Engineers help shape the future.
  • Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.
  • Engineers connect science to the real world.

The testing yielded two salient findings. First, the message that invoked science to illustrate the value of engineering was the least appealing. The committee felt this showed how strongly perceptions of science (and mathematics) have shaped current perceptions of engineering.

To put this another way, messages linking skills in science and mathematics to success in engineering have clearly reached a wide audience. Although this message is correct, the research suggests that emphasizing this connection has not improved the appeal of engineering. Therefore, the committee recommended that this particular message not be used.

Second, there were significant differences between the reactions of girls and boys to the messages and in their general perceptions of engineering. For example, boys appear to have a more positive opinion of engineering as a career choice and are more likely to believe it has a positive effect on people’s lives. Girls found all of the tested messages less appealing than boys did.

The research found almost no statistically significant differences among the responses of white, African American, and Hispanic participants in the survey. But the committee noted that this does not necessarily mean that messages should not be optimized for targeted populations by taking into account ethnicity, culture, language, and other factors.

Progress toward Change

In the almost three years since the report was published, the notion that the engineering community needs to change its messaging has gained some currency. A number of engineering schools, including Purdue and the University of Colorado Boulder (featured as a case study in this issue, p. 23), have adopted the new messaging platform. The report and its recommendations have also been featured at meetings sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Association of Engineering Societies, and a variety of other groups and organizations. In addition, the National Engineers Week Foundation will include a messaging-training component in its 2012 E-Week events.

These positive responses to the report are encouraging, but we are far from reaching the critical mass of implementation necessary to make a lasting impact on public attitudes about engineering. Therefore, NAE recently secured support from the National Science Foundation to conduct a follow-on project. Co-chaired by Ellen Kullman, CEO of E.I. duPont de Nemours and Company, and me, the goals of the project, which began last year, are to provide useful and direct assistance to the engineering community via an online messaging “toolkit.”

Our hope is that the Changing the Conversation website (, launched in mid-January, will catalyze the growth of a vital community of messaging practitioners in industry, academia, government, and the nonprofit sector. The success of this campaign will depend on the participation of the very individuals and groups who have a stake in the future of engineering and of the nation’s innovation engine.


Ensuring a vibrant engineering workforce is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring a prosperous future for our nation. It is part of a mix of factors, including investments in research, promotion of innovation capacity, and improvements in K–12 STEM education, that require our attention and support. We know that improved messaging about engineering will not, by itself, reverse the disturbing trends noted in the opening section of this article.

We also know that a world-class engineering workforce is critical to our country’s future prosperity and success. We believe that a concerted, rigorous effort to improve messaging and carry out a broad scale, sustained campaign over a long period of time can significantly help in the development of a high-quality, diverse engineering workforce.

The NAE committee working on this project intends to call on colleagues in business, academia, and professional societies to use these messages and their derivatives consistently and persistently to help change the focus from short-term political and financial goals to the strategic needs of our nation.


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About the Author:Charles M. Vest is president, National Academy of Engineering, and co-chair, Committee on Implementing Engineering Messages.