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A Blast From The Past ...

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SEAINT Readers:
Apparently, my editorial in the February 2001 Issue of STRUCTURE Magazine is not available in cyberspace.  Your requests for a PDF copy have far exceeded my expectations.  To stem the flow, I have cut and pasted the text of the original article below.  It has everything but my smiling mug shot and the printers fancy graphics.
Stan R. Caldwell, P.E., SECB
Plano, Texas
STRUCTURE February 2001
From the Desk of ... 
Structural engineering has been around since the first cave shortage, yet there is a growing perception that this noble profession might now be dying.  What fuels this troublesome notion?  Perhaps it starts in high school, where many of the brightest students are encouraged not to pursue the “long, hard road” of engineering.  Why labor over calculus and matrix math, when those hours could be more productively spent learning “high tech” skills like HTML and JAVA?  Those who resist this logic are often advised to pursue fields of engineering such as electrical and chemical, which are perceived to offer high initial compensation and early exposure to emerging technology without the burden of obtaining a master’s degree.
The perception does not improve in college.  Structural engineering is perhaps the only profession that is not supported by any dedicated departments or degree programs at major universities.  There is at least one large university where the dean of engineering believes that structural engineering is obsolete.  He views structural engineers as little more than math technicians who meticulously follow precise recipes to produce adequate designs.  When eminent professors of concrete and steel design have retired, he has replaced them with experts in newer “structural” areas like asphalt and reinforced polymers.  
In the workplace, many structural engineers find themselves positioned pretty low on the project “food chain.”  MEP engineers typically receive higher fees in return for somewhat less effort and far less liability.  Architects and civil engineers are almost always the prime professionals on building and bridge projects, respectively.  They frequently select structural engineers based on price, and intentionally fail to involve structural engineers on some of their projects.  After all, only a handful of states enforce any type of “S.E.” license.  Meanwhile, structural design codes and regulations have evolved into a self-perpetuating industry, with each revision becoming more prescriptive and allowing less opportunity for structural engineers to exercise their professional judgment.
Finally, there is the general public.  They really have no clue who we are or what we do.  Based on media reports, isn’t it obvious that buildings are designed by architects and bridges are designed by state highway engineers?  I can think of only one movie featuring a structural engineer, and he turned out to be a terrorist.  The only instance that I know of where structural engineering has been referenced on commercial television is in a humorous advertisement for a motel chain.  Compare this with virtually any other profession.  The problem is not that we suffer from a poor public image, but that we have no image whatsoever.
Enough! The reality is that structural engineering is a wonderful profession with a bright future.  To quote Herbert Hoover: “Ours is a great profession.  There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper.  Then it moves to realization in stone or metal.”  What greater satisfaction can there be than observing the successful completion of a significant building or bridge that you have nurtured from conception?  There is also considerable satisfaction derived from the service that we render to society.  As Ron Hamburger recently wrote: “Most structural engineers, over the course of their careers, are responsible for protecting more lives than most medical doctors.”
It is a myth that structural engineering is a lousy business and structural engineers are poorly paid.  Structural engineers are not prohibited from acting as the prime professional on any project, and many are now seizing that opportunity.  While fee pressure will never be eliminated, it can be effectively remedied by emphasizing value and by striving for better clients and projects.  Structural engineers normally are compensated at least as well as architects and civil engineers with comparable experience, and some earn more than $200,000.
We provide structural engineering services by exercising considerable professional judgment, even though we don’t always recognize it as such.  We are continually challenged with the ever-increasing size and complexity of our structures, as well as the advanced materials and techniques used in their construction.  Computers have given us incredible power to test multiple options and visualize the results without the number crunching drudgery of the past.  In fact, with GUI systems now in common use, it could be argued that structural engineering is actually fun!
A final concern is that the future of structural engineering is not guaranteed.  It is the obligation of all structural engineers to improve the profession and preserve it for the generations that follow.  Reality must overcome perception, and not vice versa.  We need to work individually and collectively to dispel the myths that are prevalent among students and educators, prospects and clients, regulatory organizations, and the general public.  This is the daunting mission of the Advocacy Committee of NCSEA.  It will require an army of volunteer speakers and writers.  Are you willing to help?