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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Background Historically, the United States' engineering work force has been able to meet rapidly expanding needs for engineers In such fields as aeronautical engineenng, computer engineering, and materials science and in areas driven primarily by national policy, such as defense, energy, and space. Dunng the 1920s, when European universities were the capitals of science, the United States was preeminent by almost any industrial measure including worker productivity, per capita income, and trade surplus. Now, however, U.S. universities are the capitals of science, and Japan has the trade surplus.1 Any technology- based advantages held by U.S. firms over foreign firms are likely to be more fleeting in the future not only because new knowledge and technologies developed in the United States are transferred to foreign competitors more rapidly than they were in the past, but also because technology-based advantages will Paginate in other countnes. As industrial competition increases, Be product cycle is becoming shorter, while the tune needed to complete an engineering degree is becoming longer. This means that now-more than ever before the demands of industry are more likely to change while a student is enrolled in an engineering program, and the student will need to adapt faster to changes in both technologies and markets; this also means that practicing engineers must remain current throughout their professional careers. The National Academy of Engineering (MAE) asked the National Research Council's Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel (OSEP) to conduct a study of what is known and what needs to be known about adaptability among the engineering work force in He United States, as a prerequisite to understanding what policy mechanisms may be needed, and what action might be taken to enhance the adaptability of tile U.S. eng~neenng work force. OSEP convened a steering committee of engineers arid scientists 1 Ralph E. Gomory, "Erom the ladder of Science' to the Product Development Cycle," Harvard Business Review 67~63:99-105, November-December 1989. 1
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from industry, academe, and the professional engineering societies to guide its efforts and to prepare a report summarizing its findings and conclusions. Although adaptability is not directly observable, it can be inferred from mobility patterns among fields, work activities, and sectors of the economy. The committee commissioned special data tabulations and papers reviewing what the major data bases tell us albeit indirectly about adaptability. To supplement this quantitative information, case studies were prepared for the fields of chemical engineenng, nuclear engineenng, and computer science. To assess the extent to which both the quantitative and qualitative knowledge bases reflect reality, the committee invited engineers- and those who educate, train, employ, and study engineers to an intensive one-day workshop on National Needs and Technological Change: Fostering Flexibility in the Engineering Work Force. The committee's findings and conclusions are based on infom~anon developed from these · · ~ actlvl~aes. Findings The committee agreed that adaptability is not a new issue but that the context In which we examine adaptability is new In two major ways: . Whole complexes of new technologies-for example, information technology, biotechnology, and genetic engineenng~equire rapid adjustmera to their use and commercial exploitation. In addinon, He committee found ~at: 2 . The erosion of its technological leadership means that the United States is less able to control the pace at which new technologies and knowledge are disseminated; consequently, the need increasesfor the United States' economy to respond to new challenges from international scientific, engineering, and economic communities. 3 . There does not appear to be a lack of mobility among individuals in the engineering work force. 2
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Analyses of special tabulations of data on persons with eng~neenng degrees identified two groups: one group who are "stayers" in the same engineering field and another group of "switchers" who, once they have switched, continue to switch at relatively high rates either to other engineering fields or to nonengineering fields. Preliminary findings indicate that age does not appear to be related to employment field switching for those with the B.S., M.S., or Ph.D., degrees in eng~neenng. However, the following factors do appear to be related to employment field switching for those with the B.S., or M.S., degree In engineering: number of years since the last degree in engineering was earned, field of study, and primary work activity. For those at the B.S., or M.S., level the data indicate Me existence of two career tracks technical and management; there does not appear to be a dual career track for those with the doctorate In eng~neenng. 4 . In quantitative teens, there does not appear to be a lack of adaptability among the U.S. engineering workforce. Extant data are inadequate to assess the qualitative aspects of adaptability. 5. Adoptability results as much from socialization as education. 6. . Adaptability among engineers is enhanced by good grounding not only in the basics~thernatics, statistics, physics, chemistry, and engineering-but also in problem-solving. 7. What impedes production of adaptable engineers may not be the engineering curriculum but how that curriculum is delivered. a. Continuing education could enhance Adaptability in the engineering work force. 9. Taron~rrues usually used to collect data on engineers are not adequate to capture the kinds of shifts of specialties and skills occurring in the engineering labor market. At best the data give indications of the quantitative aspects of mobility that is; the numbers of engineers moving from one field to another but fewer indications of the 3
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qualitative aspects of mobility-such as the quality of the work performed by those who move. . . Conclusions Today, the United States is competing in a chastening arena charactenzed by unprecedented technological change and rapid transfer of information. Many people believe that successful competition under these conditions requires an even more adaptable engineering work force. Cu~Tent evidence on the adequacy of existing mechanisms to facilitate adaptability not sufficient to guide the development of policy. Action to improve our knowledge base is required now before such policy is needed. If adaptability encompasses the ability to transform new scientific and technological knowledge into product and process applications, then adaptability is facilitated or impeded-by the way in which engineers and other technical employees are supervised ark managed. Further research is needed on the aspects of daily on-the job activities that facilitate and impede adaptability, including the methodology or process aspect of engineering that is, the ways in which engineers tackle their problems and the avocation of project assignments. Moreover, data on demonstrations and pilot projects and assessments thereof undertaken by industry, academe, and the professional associations need to be collected and analyzed to increase our understanding of how to enhance adaptability in the eng~neenng work force. Both the committee and the workshop participants agreed that there is an urgent need for a forum in which key players from the public and private sectors can meet not only to raise issues but also to devise, implement, evaluate, and track their solutions. Before undertaking any additional activities, the committee suggests that the recommendations Tom past activities be reviewed to see whether they were implemented and with what outcomes and that a systematic plan be devised to build a solid research base from which to develop additional activities. 4
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