Productivity isn’t everything, but…

No wonder Trump can easily still command rustbelt supporters. Stagnation in the US manufacturing industry is killing prospects for wage rises. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released two weeks ago shows that while productivity increased by about 3% annually from the 1980s till 2007, annual growth since has been only 0.4%. Most of that, and more, is needed for sustainability improvements like changing to clean energy.

Labor productivity depends on engineered tools, machines and materials, so engineers are the key people to restart productivity growth. While economics and labor saving solutions were the priority for engineers in the 1950s, as evidenced by the ASEE Grinter report, now that seems to have been forgotten. Our research is revealing that today’s engineers have limited understanding on how to generate commercial value.

Students need to learn the fundamental purpose of engineering. Distilled from our research on hundreds of engineers in several countries, that purpose is to enable people to be more productive.

“Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of artificial objects, processes and systems. These enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.”

Sustainability depends on similar improvements.

As Paul Krugman wrote more than 30 years ago,

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.”

Economists are hoping that the digital economy will restore productivity growth. It might. But in a world where information supply is exponentially increasing, its value must be exponentially decreasing.

Humanity needs real goods with real value: food, shelter, clothing, water, energy, communications, transport, sanitation. Engineers are crucial players in providing more real goods with a lot less resources. That’s the only guarantee of prosperity and political stability.

I urge educators to ensure that today’s students and engineers don’t forget this.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, February 4). Labor Productivity and Costs 1987 – 2020. Retrieved February 12 from

Grinter, L. E. (1955). Report of the Committee On Evaluation of Engineering Education (Grinter Report). Journal of Engineering Education, 44(3), 25-60. Retrieved from

Krugman, P. (1990). The Age of Diminished Expectations: U.S. Economic Policy in the 1990s. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Trevelyan, J. P. (2019). Transitioning to Engineering Practice. European Journal of Engineering Education, 44(6), 821-837. doi:10.1080/03043797.2019.1681631

Trevelyan, J. P., & Williams, B. (2018). Value creation in the engineering enterprise: an educational perspective. European Journal of Engineering Education. doi:10.1080/03043797.2017.1421905

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