The Changing Role of Engineers in Our Society


Man has been building structures since the dawn of civilization. From the simplest, most rudimentary structures such as shelters, man has learnt from our efforts in building. As populations grew, the need for towns, then cities, became necessary. With this came the need for roads, bridges, water supply and sewage systems. The lessons learnt have permitted successive generations of similar structures to be constructed in a better manner through the use of better materials, methods of construction and designs. Although the term engineer may not have been used, these simple structures were examples of basic engineering.


Since then, civilizations have flourished for millennia, and associated with their growth was an effective system of structures and infrastructures built by engineers. These skills allowed each civilization to progressively improve the quality of life for their citizens and to facilitate the growth of their civilization. It also afforded them, through their engineers, an opportunity to build structures that were unsurpassed in their era and to showcase themselves to the rest of the world. The Mayan Temples in Mexico, Parthenon in Greece, Coliseum in Rome, Great Wall in China and Taj Mahal in India are such structures.


Humankind has progressed significantly since these times. In the last 150 years, the industrial age brought with it an era of unsurpassed mechanical productivity which facilitated the ready availability of steel and other building materials. This, in turn, has allowed us to build larger and taller structures now than were ever dreamed possible.


The rise of this nation, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century and through the middle of the twentieth century, was directly attributable to the successes of the Civil Engineer. Our leaders realized that an effective infrastructure was essential for the growth of our nation and to improve the life of our citizens. Several large-scale plans were envisioned and undertaken. Funds were

allocated and laws were enacted to ensure these goals were met. Structures such as the Transcontinental Railroad, Brooklyn Bridge, Panama Canal, Hoover Dam and Empire State Building were built, and the Civil Engineer was viewed as the pioneer of this era, both professionally and socially, braving himself against harsh and barbarous landscapes to build structures that would better serve people.


Civil Engineers began to play a less visible role near the end of World War II. Military spending became the largest segment of government spending during the cold war. It was believed that the essential infrastructure of this nation was in place and that defense of the nation during the cold war was a priority. Laws changed, holding businesses and professionals responsible for individual harm. The concept that a loss of life as a result of these efforts, however regrettable, was necessary in order for the nation to progress, no longer held true. Additionally, there has been a gradual erosion of the economic loss rule. This economic loss rule essentially shields designers and contractors from any economic losses an individual or a corporation sustains as a result of a project. The erosion of this rule has forced engineers to design structures that are more averse to risk, using tested and proven techniques and methods, as opposed to utilizing and implementing innovative designs and procedures.


As we approach an era where the infrastructure has reached capacity in a more urbanized landscape than was ever thought possible, the role of the engineer has become even more challenging. Our ability to build greater structures in more restricted environments has significantly improved through the use of better materials, methods and designs. Rebuilding the infrastructure or the construction of new buildings in populated areas involves community participation, maintaining quality-of-life issues for area residents and businesses and minimizing the impact of projects on the community. Use of economic, environmentally friendly products is becoming more widespread and, in some cases, mandatory. Designs that are context-sensitive, sustainable and environmentally-friendly are becoming prerequisites rather than luxuries. More engineers are becoming certified by the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building.


Rating System, which allots points and rates buildings based on designers' use of several criteria.


Additionally, the 9/11 tragedy that struck our nation has demanded that we design and build structures that are economic and less vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Measures have been taken to secure critical components of structures using engineered methods. New designs of high-rise structures incorporate a greater degree of redundancy. Our embassies abroad have, in the recent past, been designed and constructed to be less vulnerable to attacks.


The demand for engineers to design and build our structures and improve our infrastructure is increasing, but the number of students enrolling for engineering is decreasing. The logical conclusion we can draw from this is that as demand rises and the number of graduate engineers' falls, recognition for our profession, both socially and monetarily, would increase. Unfortunately, this is not the case.


The Political Twist

The status of the engineer in our society is somewhat diminished as a professional. Other professionals, such as Doctors, Lawyers and Accountants are viewed more highly than Professional Engineers. There are several reasons for this.


As engineers, our work is based on the visions of others. A project will come to fruition through:

•     An initial determination that there is a need for the project (this aspect is usually decided by politicians)

•     An initial study with findings shall then be prepared (usually performed by engineers and overseen by politicians)

•     The study will be reviewed and a decision will be made (this aspect is also usually decided by politicians)

•     The design phase (usually performed by engineers)

     The construction phase (usually performed by engineers)


Our role in determining whether the project should go forward is miniscule. We only begin to play a secondary role in the initial study and have a primary involvement with the project during the design and construction phases of a project. During the initial study, design and construction phases, we will be immersed in our design, looking for better, more effective designs, ensuring the plans and specifications that we develop are thorough and complete. In order for us to gain more recognition and respect as professionals, we should be instrumental in determining whether or not a project should be undertaken.

 The primary reason for this is that we are not represented well by our leadership. Starting on a local level (NYC Council) and working up to the federal level (U.S. Senators and Congressmen), only few are professional engineers or have an engineering background. In effect, engineers have a low or insignificant representation at all levels of government.


Furthermore, the advent of concepts such as competitive bidding, fixed fees and negotiated bidding force us, as professionals, to substantially reduce our already low overhead and profit margins. The end result is that we, as professionals, with employees to whom we are responsible for providing meaningful, lasting employment, are forced to offer fewer benefits or terminate employees upon completion of a project in order to maintain or lower our overhead, making our profession a seasonal one at best, one in which a career choice for a lifetime cannot be guaranteed. Additionally, the growth of our industry is severely limited because of the financial constraints placed on us by these new forms of bidding. Anyone considering a career in this profession who realizes these facts would probably choose a more stable career than engineering. Additionally, those already employed in our profession have cause to seek alternate, more lasting employment in other fields, leading to a loss of qualified personnel in this field.

 It is essential that the direction in which our industry is headed is changed. It must become clear that engineers must be entitled to certain compensation. There are several fair and equitable methods of determining this.


Audits for our cost can be performed by a ationwide agency, and based on the results of the audits, multipliers and fees may be determined. However, the award of any project must be based solely on the qualifications and the size of the firm and must be independent of the costs audited. Rates for various positions must be fair and equitable when compared to professionals in other industries with similar experience. This will lead to salary scales for engineers that are competitive with other professionals who have similar experience.


 In order to achieve these goals, we must also ask ourselves what we can do to improve our status in society and as professionals. Several ideas have been proposed, such as:

•    We should get involved in politics to make a difference in our lives. Let us get started at the local level. We should get involved with our community boards. We can help them identify the need of the community including any potential projects, etc. We can educate our community to appreciate the role of an engineer in our society.

    Get to know our politicians who represent us. Let them know our opinion on different issues. Ask them to support the bills that affect our profession. Demand that our infrastructures must be kept in a good condition. It is a matter of priority and the safety of public.

    Let us get Quality Based Selection (QBS) adapted at all levels of government. Cost must not be a factor in selection of a consultant. This will give us an opportunity to pay our engineers a reasonable compensation compared to other professions.

•    All engineer associations should get united to pursue our goals until we receive the recognition and prestige we all deserve.


In several parts of the world, engineers are regarded highly as professionals. This is not the case in our country. It is time for us to unite and bring the vision of prestige that we know is associated with our profession to reality.




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