Engineering Depth and Breadth

March 2006 » Columns
Often, the engineering industry's dialogues regarding engineering education focus on the value of advanced degrees, real-world experience, and professional development. We frame these discussions in terms of the journey from engineering student to experienced professional engineer, with some common milestones along the way. Most of the emphasis of our educational system necessarily is focused on the technical building blocks of our respective engineering disciplines. Indeed, one need only look at the subject-specific PE exams to see the fields we have defined for our young civil engineers: geotechnical, structural, transportation, environmental, and water resources. Although each of these has its own respective specialties, they represent the relatively basic technical knowledge that provides the foundation for a professional engineering career. On the other hand, our employers and clients expect much more, and rightly so. This is the basis for the arguments in support of advanced degrees and continuing professional development. A client will not care how a designer performed in school. A client comes to your consulting firm to find a comprehensive solution to a problem; he needs something done, often on a tight deadline and on an even tighter budget. This is the domain in which technical competence, while crucial, must operate in conjunction with a more senior engineer's management, negotiation, and public relations skills. These are skills that derive directly from the fact that engineering is not just a profession, but a business.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

Often, the engineering industry's dialogues regarding engineering education focus on the value of advanced degrees, real-world experience, and professional development. We frame these discussions in terms of the journey from engineering student to experienced professional engineer, with some common milestones along the way. Most of the emphasis of our educational system necessarily is focused on the technical building blocks of our respective engineering disciplines. Indeed, one need only look at the subject-specific PE exams to see the fields we have defined for our young civil engineers: geotechnical, structural, transportation, environmental, and water resources. Although each of these has its own respective specialties, they represent the relatively basic technical knowledge that provides the foundation for a professional engineering career.

On the other hand, our employers and clients expect much more, and rightly so. This is the basis for the arguments in support of advanced degrees and continuing professional development. A client will not care how a designer performed in school. A client comes to your consulting firm to find a comprehensive solution to a problem; he needs something done, often on a tight deadline and on an even tighter budget. This is the domain in which technical competence, while crucial, must operate in conjunction with a more senior engineer's management, negotiation, and public relations skills. These are skills that derive directly from the fact that engineering is not just a profession, but a business.

I venture to say that most engineers did not enter undergraduate school with the thought of running a business. Nevertheless, the economic realities of life soon set in; there is little room in most engineering projects for academic research. As professionals, we must address this reality. We have attempted to ensure that those who choose to offer their services to the public have a basic knowledge of their technical fields as well as some minimal grasp of ethics and business relationships. Returning to the discipline-specific exams, we see however that there is no "project management" or "business administration" test. We presume that these are topics that will be learned as we progress through our careers. We hope that they are learned from honest mentors who understand the significance and trust involved in all aspects of engineering. But we have no guarantees.

We could depend upon simple economics to provide a solution: Those engineers that are not good businesspeople will not have successful businesses. Unfortunately, however, this does a disservice to those engineers who attempt such endeavors, to the clients who must suffer the inevitable setbacks and delays, and even to competing engineers. The engineers who may end up with those dissatisfied clients must "retrain" them to trust the engineer to complete a job without excessive oversight or micromanagement. No one wins when the industry cannot consistently produce effective managers and client advocates. We must ensure that professional engineers are able to synthesize their technical foundations with such disparate fields as economics, marketing, psychology, or social science. To do this, we should look to creative business leaders as much as we do to technical geniuses to create a firm, professional foundation.

My previous column emphasized that workplace training is a valuable investment, but there also is a delicate balance with which engineering managers must cope to maintain viable businesses. Is it appropriate to expect that newly licensed professional engineers should be theoretically capable of operating their own firms? Or is this one of the qualities that distinguishes the successful professional from a younger apprentice?

Send your thoughts and opinions to Jason Burke, P.E., at civilconnection@cenews.com.


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