LEADERSHIP: Engineers must regain their former leadership role in society.
The great engineers of the past were all strong leaders-Telford, Stephenson,
Wright, Roebling-but the great preponderance of engineers of today are "too
busy" to assume leadership roles in their communities, at the state level,
or nationally. As a result, our voices are absent during serious debate on
engineering and technology issues related to public health, safety, and
welfare. We are generally not at the table when key decisions affecting our
profession and public health, safety, and welfare are being made.
There are, at most, 4 members of the 535-member U.S. Congress who list
themselves as engineers. There are very few state, city, or county
legislators who are engineers and we are generally absent from operating in
our local communities on boards, commissions, or councils. As a result, the
public does not recognize engineers as leaders. Our failure to participate
in public affairs is the main reason people view us as followers rather than
leaders. This, along with the fact that "there are simply too many of us out
there," as stated by S.G. Walesh in his paper "Engineering a New Education,"
contributes to the lack of prestige and the relatively low salary levels of
Our profession is on the path to becoming a commodity-services provided
solely on the basis of the cheapest price. We must force change or others
will force it upon us and we might not like the results.
As an illustration of our precarious situation, let us further look at the
public sector. At one time all heads of state transportation and public
works agencies were engineers. Now there are only 14, according to Thomas
Warne, head of the Utah Department of Transportation. At one time most
departments of public works at the state and the local level were headed by
engineers. Now there are relatively few. At one time all the engineering
bureaus of the city of Chicago were headed by engineers. Now, according to
Donald Eckman, none are. At the national level, practically all the policy
positions with oversight of engineering functions are headed by
"The world is run by those who show up," says Richard G. Weingardt, and we
are not showing up in sufficient numbers to make a difference. That is why
the public perceives engineers as doers, not leaders or managers. "The great
leaders are highly visible. Their followers know where to find them and what
they stand for," says Weingardt.
If our profession is to rank among the top in the world, we must do a better
job of developing leaders. We must also have a paradigm shift toward a
stronger profession; stiffer academic and continuing education requirements,
greater involvement in leadership roles in all aspects of our lives, greater
involvement in the political process as candidates for elective and
appointive office and as strong supporters of candidates, greater
involvement in professional and technical society activities, etc. If we are
not willing to do these things, then our profession will continue on the
road toward becoming a commodity. That would do little for our image and
stature and for our claim to increased compensation.
Engineering has been very good to my generation. It has provided us the
opportunity to achieve the American dream for our families, to travel the
world, to design and build structures that will be here long after we are
gone, to make wonderful, lifelong friends, and to be honored by our peers.
My greatest fear is that we will be too timid to make the hard decisions
necessary to ensure that our profession will remain one of the world's best.
With a lack of resolve, our profession will continue to diminish in stature.
The future is in our hands, and for the sake of those who come behind I hope
we make the right choices.
-Delon Hampton, June, 2000