Industry Market Trends

Redefining Engineering for the Year 2020

Jul 19, 2006

Engineering, through its role in the creation and implementation of technology, has been critical to the improvement and vitality of our national economic well-being, health and quality of life. It's been called "the foundation of American ingenuity." But it needs to change, according to the National Academy of Engineering.

Engineering has been called the "stealth profession," because so many people remain clueless as to what engineers do — which is unfortunate, because engineering is linked to everything in society.

Engineering, through its role in the creation and implementation of technology, has been critical to the improvement and vitality of our national economic well-being, health and quality of life. In fact, according to an interview with Dr. Peter Pao, a 27-year veteran of the aerospace and electronics industry and Raytheon's acting corporate VP of Engineering, Technology, Manufacturing and Quality, "The foundation of American ingenuity is engineering."

But it needs to change, according to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The NAE aspires for engineers of 2020 to be more than just competent or admirable technicians — the forthcoming years will require ingenious leaders — ingenious engineers. The globally interconnected world that is shaped in nearly every way by accelerated, seamless and indispensable technological innovation will need Renaissance Engineers: analytical, business-savvy leaders who are effective communicators, creative and inventive, inquisitive, detail oriented and possessing of practical ingenuity.

Of course, this well-rounded Renaissance Engineer must learn early.

The NAE's "Engineer of 2020" initiative, an attempt to determine the kind of engineering education that must be provided to students to prepare them for careers less than two decades from now, had two phases. The first was a community-wide conversation to identify the dynamic forces at play and then aspirations and expectations that should characterize engineering in 2020. The second phase, which involved an educational summit, offered a number of ideas for how engineering education could rise to the challenge through various education reform, including changes in the curriculum, extracurricular options, new approaches to educational delivery and innovative options for educational structure.

"The education we provide engineers must prepare them to move beyond merely fulfilling a technological function and become leaders who make wise decisions about technology and set policies that foster innovation," G. Wayne Clough, Georgia Institute of Technology president and NAE member, said at the beginning of the second phase in his alumnus magazine.

The NAE Committee on Engineering Education, in its executive summary, said future engineers should be broadly educated, ethically grounded citizens, capable of being leaders in business and public service. It said that in order for the engineering profession to define its own future, it must do the following: foster a vision; transform engineering education to achieve that vision; build a clear image for new roles for engineers in the minds of the public and prospective students; accommodate innovative developments from non-engineering fields; and focus the energies of the different disciplines of engineering toward common goals.

Is the engineering profession not doing that now?

A sobering reality lies in that the past 15 years have seen the number of engineering and computer science B.S. degrees granted in the U.S. drop from about 110,000 to a low of 88,000, although it has recently rebounded to about 109,000, according to the National Science Board (NSB). Despite the rebound, the U.S. still is granting engineering degrees at a lower rate than in the mid-1980s, and nationally, less than 55 percent of students who undertake engineering studies complete them, according to Clough.

Another consideration is the suggested lack of local interest and talent and a lack of engineering-related education programs for future American engineers. As overseas countries offer incentives to their brightest students to learn in the U.S. and then offer job security for them to return, U.S. engineering programs fill up with students from overseas, who then return home once they graduate. The shortage of U.S. students has a drastic effect on where companies go to find talent.

Added to fewer U.S. engineering students is the increasing export of engineering jobs overseas.

In the global economy of the future, routine aspects of engineering (if not entire total project work) very well may be performed overseas. This is a major concern for those in the profession even now. According to EE Times' 2005 State of the Engineer Survey, offshore contracting "looms large." Second only to job security and unemployment (68 percent), offshore outsourcing was the top issue of concern, with 64 percent of engineer respondents stating it as primary undercurrent of anxiety.

To assure the future vitality of engineering in the U.S., argues NAE member and BE&K Inc. founder Theodore C. Kennedy, engineers in the U.S. will need skills that distinguish them from engineers in other countries and justify their higher wages. "We need to change what we expect from engineers, and we have to turn out graduates with broader skills, interests and abilities," says the engineering and construction services provider chairman. "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."

Of course, when it comes to reforming engineering education for a broader-studied future engineer, "the devil is in the details," as Clough wrote recently.

The engineering curriculum is already crowded, and adding anything is difficult. We all agree that the fundamentals of engineering must be taught, but, given the imperative for change, we must begin to rethink what we casually call a university education — both out-of-class experiences and in-class learning.

While the majority of U.S. engineering colleges have been working for some time to improve engineering education through NSF Education Coalitions and in collaboration with ABET, and although these efforts have been impressive, "they have rarely focused on the long view," said Clough. This is why NAE's Engineer of 2020 initiative is encouraging more long-range thinking in its attempt to determine the kind of engineering education that must be provided to prepare U.S. engineering graduates for careers two decades from now.

"Because large-scale changes in engineering education will take time, we must start now to change our approach to engineering education in time to produce graduates ready for 2020," according to Clough. He, along with the whole of The National Academy of Engineering, says it is imperative that engineering education anticipates the future rather than reacts to the past.

Simply put, the profession must be redefined to create a sort of Renaissance Man type of engineer. What attributes will that engineer of 2020 have? The NAE report says he or she "will aspire to have the ingenuity of Lillian Gilbreth, the problem-solving capabilities of Gordon Moore, the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, the vision of Martin Luther King and the curiosity and wonder of our grandchildren."

We ask you, the readers, is all of this necessary?


The Engineer of 2020

Reforming Engineering Education

by G. Wayne Clough

The Bridge (V. 36, No. 2 - Summer 2006)

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

by Theodore C. Kennedy

The Bridge (V. 36, No. 2 - Summer 2006)

Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond

by Charles M. Vest

The Bridge (V. 36, No. 2 - Summer 2006)

Companies look for engineers outside U.S.

by Bob Robuck

News 8 Austin, Nov. 11, 2005

The Ingenious Engineer of 2020

Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine

An Interview With Dr. Peter Pao, Raytheon's Chief Technology Officer

Raytheon, March 2006

High pay, high anxiety

by David Roman

EE Times, Aug. 22, 2005