Levees destroyed in the South. Structural failures in the Big Dig tunnel. Buildings collapsing around the world caused by poor design or overloading. Accidents at construction sites. Snarling traffic jams. Poor road conditions. Under-funded infrastructure that puts public health at risk.
Quite a list of issues for which engineers-civil engineers especially-have been taking blame over the past several years. It is not hard at all to see how we might be fighting an uphill battle to attract new college graduates to our profession. We have had nearly as many episodes of bad publicity as Congress, and we have just as tough a battle to convince the public that we know what we're doing. The only way to meet this challenge, however, is to portray the business of engineering as a viable alternative to the hot degrees right now. But wait, engineering (at least chemical, computer, and environmental) has been hanging up there in the top 10 undergraduate degrees for the past several years. Maybe things aren't as bad as they seem.
In rising to the occasion, we have continued our effort to improve the engineer's image in the public eye through community outreach, education, and volunteering. We have maintained our commitment to continuing education and the development of true professionals in our field by raising the bar for new licensees in the future. And we have a solid professional ethic that resists most claims of corruption or wrongdoing. Regardless of outsiders' perceptions, we should never forget that all of us are at the same time mentors and students to one another. All of our successes and failures are part of our scientific advancement, and our profession is dependent on continual exchange of knowledge. From the newest engineering graduate to the seasoned veteran, we all have something to give to and take from others. I believe it is this inherent cooperation that attracts many potential engineers to the field.
With all of the everyday issues that are part of running a business, we often need to make a conscious effort to see ourselves as more than simply technical or administrative employees. Everyone has the potential to be a mentor and leader, but it does not come automatically. It is difficult for many of us to step into the role of a mentor, but the truth is that we may be in it whether we know it or not. It only takes one of your peers to view you as someone who is able to lead them where they would like to be someday. Whether that refers to knowledge, status, connections, salary, attitude, or something more intangible, a leader is most effective if a follower perceives that the grass is greener where they are being led.
We can expand this simple one-on-one relationship to the broader industry and see the power of community outreach and positive publicity. If we demonstrate to others that civil engineers are valuable contributors to the public welfare and that we effectively utilize high-tech hardware, computer systems, and methods, then we are moving in the right direction to attract new life to our vital profession.
There are several factors that may contribute to a particular industry's ability to attract new graduates. While we may not be able to quantify each of them, it is obvious that there are several steps that are clear benefits. As one of these, mentoring and community outreach begins with school children, but continues for decades into and out of our careers. We can wait for the economic need for civil engineers to turn the tide, or we can proactively demonstrate our value to society to prevent a greater labor shortage in the near future.
Jason Burke works for Allied Engineering (www.alliedengineering.com ) in Bozeman, Mont.
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