Has Engineering Divorced Economy?

I came across this report on the economic contributions of engineering prepared by PWC for Engineering New Zealand. In preparing the report, PWC and Engineering New Zealand assembled about 20 senior engineers from a representative sample of industries and asked them to write a brief description of engineering.


Here’s a word cloud summarising the result.

Now, what’s gone missing?

Remember that this was an exercise in assessing the economic significance of engineering in New Zealand…

Still wondering?

To me, the connections with business, finance, investment and productivity are missing. “value” was mentioned by just two respondents. “economic value” by only one. And productivity not at all. Given that engineers cannot do anything without money, this has all the appearance of a divorce… and a poorly considered one at that.

The PWC author emphasised productivity repeatedly through the report, but none of the engineers mentioned the connection.

A few years ago I was asked to review a proposal for new engineering professional competency definitions by Engineers Australia. The draft resulted from wide consultation across engineer members. As in this exercise, there was no apparent connection in the proposed competencies with finance, investors, value generation or even getting paid for their work.

Engineers Australia is still consistent with this view of engineering:

Engineering is about the creation or application of technology to produce goods and services for the community. It involves finding solutions to human and environmental problems while making things for people to use. Engineers are involved in the research, design, production, operations and maintenance of many things that we take for granted in our everyday lives.

This apparent divorce seems to have happened sometime since 1955 – I have yet to discover when. For here is the definition of engineering from the influential ASEE Grinter Report that heralded the strengthening of mathematics and science in engineering education, leading to immense productivity and prosperity growth, but also immense and unsustainable resource consumption through the second half the the twentieth century.

“The obligations of an engineer as a servant of society involve the continual maintenance and improvement of man’s material environment, within economic bounds, and the substitution of labor-saving devices for human effort. Moreover, his activity usually has a direct bearing on the welfare and safety of large segments of society. Like the physician, the engineer must work within the current limitations of the state of his art and must decide which one of several possibilities provides the best solution to a given problem.”

Now, perhaps it is just a coincidence, but productivity growth around the world has been slowing and slowing. US Labor Productivity rose by only 0.4% between 2007 and 2019! And who designs the tools and equipment that enable people to work productively? Engineers of course. So maybe, just maybe there’s a connection here. If engineers forget about the need to improve productivity, who is supposed to remember?

Many people would say that climate change and sustainability are far more important than economic issues right now. Well yes, that’s a fair comment. Others would argue that business and economic focus that has constrained engineers is the reason we are facing a potential environmental catastrophe. Maybe. But, surely, the only way to overcome these challenges is to be able people to do more with less, less energy, less material resources, less human effort, no?

Recently, with contributions from 30 other helpful engineers I edited and wrote “30-Second Engineering”. In the introduction, I proposed a new definition:

Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of man-made objects and systems. These objects and systems enable people to be more productive: to do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.

Time to bring in a marriage counsellor and bring productivity back into definitions of engineering? Let me know what you think. Look up definitions of engineering used in your country and send them to me. If you can, find historical definitions so we can understand when this apparent divorce might have started.

Maybe we engineers can regain much of the respect we have lost by grasping this critical connection. There’s so much we could do if only more of us could see this. Do you agree?


  1. I help train computer professionals and engineers. One thing they have to do is work in a team for a real client and explain to the client how what they are doping is good for the client’s business. Something which I have found really helps are entrepreneurial start-up competitions, where the students learn to work out what the customer wants and what they are willing to pay for. On Thursday I helped with the next batch of 200 students. This all happens online now. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2020/08/online-real-time-student-project-team.html


  2. That’s what you get if you ask a management consultancy to investigate the issue, James. Which is perhaps surprising, in that so much of productivity improvement is now seen as something managers, rather than engineers do. Cost, Safety, Robustness are the three missing words. As far as definitions of engineering are concerned, the professional institutions have been subverted by the academics they have allowed to dominate them, and rewrite their definitions to include research.


  3. My experience here in the UK managing plants is that when management want to save money and/or increase productivity they hire consultants.

    Staff engineers aren’t rewarded for saving money, they aren’t responsible for project or facility budgets, and I have yet to meet a business that tracks or trends its genuine asset return on investment, so if an engineer did save money then few outside their immediate circle would notice.

    I think the professional institutions and employers see engineers as economically neutral – we are here to design new tools and keep things safe, legal and compliant. It’s management’s job to worry about money and deal (or ignore) the engineer’s concerns.


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