How can engineers regain the high respect and status they once enjoyed?
In many countries, engineers have lost the respect with which they were once held. Evidence for this comes from our research interviews with senior company and government representatives who displayed only limited respect for the ability of engineers to deliver valuable outcomes.
Here is a selection of quotes:
“Our engineers delivered nothing: we gave them billions and we still don’t have what they promised.” (ex Prime Minister)
“Our engineers don’t understand the business imperative of this organisation. They simply don’t get it and it frustrates me immensely.” (Company CEO)
“I eliminate as many engineers from my organisation as I can: if I need engineering done I hire outside firms to do it.” (Company CEO)
Research in a consultancy on a talented group of young engineers revealed attitudes that contribute to these issues:
- They had difficulty explaining how their work creates value for clients,
- They were disdainful of their clients,
- They did not seem to know about collaborative work practices, nor did they seem to practice them,
- They said that they understood the requirements of business and financial considerations, but had not yet internalized this notion,
- Their beliefs and actions sometimes worked in opposition to the interests of the business and its clients.
It is not just perceptions. As explained in Chapter 11, engineers currently have a less than satisfactory recent record in delivering on project expectations. There is strong evidence that billion dollar engineering project success rates are well below 50%. Some evidence has come from our own research, but most has been accumulated by large global organisations. Engineers need to rebuild respect among investors, clients and governments.
Complementary evidence comes from engineers themselves, writing in professional engineering media. They seek to regain what they see as lost respect by advocating the use of special titles, extending education qualifications, or tightening entry requirements for professional associations. Engineers complain that they are underpaid, that they are passed over for promotion by others without engineering qualifications, that they find themselves working for managers without engineering qualifications or knowledge, and that their opinions are not sought on matters with engineering implications.
As explained in Chapter 1, engineers’ remuneration, also a mark of respect, is strongly influenced by “marginal product” or value creation. Research shows that engineers and the organisations that represent them have difficulties explaining how their work creates value for investors and wider society. Without a clear understanding on how to create value, it is likely to be difficult for engineers to deliver value.
There is plenty of room for improvement and we will need tangible performance improvements to change perceptions.
As engineers, we are largely autonomous in our work: research shows we decide most of what we do each day and the priorities of different tasks. While more research is needed, it is likely that value perceptions strongly influence the “intuitive” choices that we make through our working days on what they think we need to do and when to do it. A clearer understanding that takes into account the value perceptions of investors and clients, as well as the wider community, might help achieve outcomes that help to regain the respect that contemporary generations of engineers have been yearning for. These ideas are addressed in detail in the book.
Mastery of the performances described in Chapters 7-12 in the book: technical collaboration performances such as discovery learning, teaching, technical coordination, project management and negotiation will also help deliver more predictable project results. We found in parallel studies in two major engineering firms, for example, that weaknesses in design error checking contributed significantly to delays and cost increases.
Finally, we could recognise how improving our listening, reading, seeing and critical thinking skills, and giving more respect to the equally valid ways in which others think and see the world, might also go some way towards regaining the respect we seek from others. We engineers pride ourselves on being logical thinkers yet, according to research evidence presented in the book, engineering academics know less about critical thinking than academics from other disciplines. It might be helpful to be a little less presumptuous about our own ability to think logically, and recognise other ways of thinking that might initially seem illogical to us.
Rebuilding the knowledge of practice, some of which is described in this book, knowledge that has been invisible, even lost, will help less experienced engineers avoid many mistakes that lead to disappointing project outcomes that we see around the world today.
Engineers can regain respect, over time, by consistently delivering promised results, preferably a little earlier and a little better than promised.