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BACKGROUND The Academic Advisory Board of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) identified the adaptability of the engineering work force as an issue with important implications for the United States' ability lo exercise technological leadership and compete effectively in international markets. Adaptability has been one of the strengths of the United States' science and engineering work forces. For the purposes of this report, "adaptability" is defined as the ability to transfer a given set of engineering skills among engineering fields and activities, between engineering and noneng~neering fields and activities, and among sectors of the economy; transform new scientific and technological knowledge into product and process applications; and seek out and apply ideas from outside sources to He engineering process when needed. As defined, "adaptability" is not only reactive in the sense of being limited In its capacity to adjust to change, but also proactive in the sense of having the flexibility necessary to initiate change. Historically, the United States' engineering work force has been able to meet rapidly expanding needs for engineers in such fields as aeronautical engineering, computer engineering, and materials science and in areas driven primarily by national policy, such as defense, energy, and space. For example, adaptability facilitated the adjustment to sudden unexpected declines in demand in such areas as nuclear power and petrochemicals: engineers in these areas were able to find jobs elsewhere; unfortunately, the data are sparse on the quality of their performance on these new jobs. Now, however, the United States is in a fundamentally new situation in which competitiveness is qualitatively different from what it was in the past. As our national priorities shift and as our economy becomes more service-onented, American society must be able to move workers around in response to changes In demand. The question is "Does the arrangement that we now have provide us s
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with the kind of flexibility that will be needed as we look toward the future and the Ends of forces that we will face as a nation and as an engineering corrununity?"2 Accordingly, NAE asked the National Research Council's Office of Scientific and Eng~neenng Personnel (OSEP) to conduct a study of what is known and what needs to be known about adaptability among the engineering work force in the United States. The overall objective of this activity is to increase our understanding of adaptability as a way to enhance the United States' capabilities to meet changes in both technology and national needs. Three major outcomes were anticipated: . . · a background paper summarizing what is known and what needs to be known about adaptability; a one-day workshop to evaluate the state of existing knowledge about adaptability by assessing how well this knowledge informs the major policy issues associated with adaptability, identifying important gaps in this knowledge, and fonnulating a long-range research agenda that would ultimately Educe these gaps; and a proceedings volume based on the workshop discussion. In response to this request, OSEP convened a steering committee of engineers and scientists from industry, academe, and the professional engineering societies to guide its efforts and to prepare a report summarizing its findings and conclusions. The committee concurs with the finding fimm a recent National Research Council report that since the m~-1960s, as the economy has become increasingly international, the United States' economic penance has detenwated and changes in the international economic environment have narrowed the technological gap between Me UnitM States and other industrial economies in many industries.3 Any technology-based advantages held by U.S. firms and workers over foreign firms and workers are likely to be more fleeting in He future, not only because new knowledge and technologies developed in the United States are transferred to foreign competitors more rapidly than they were in Be past, but also because technology-based advantages will originate in over countries. This means that, in the future, the United States will have less conmo} than previously over the pace at which 2Robert M. White, "Opening Remarks to Workshop on National Needs and Technological Change: Fostering Flexibility in the Engineering Work Force9" September 1989. 3Richard M. Cyert and David C. Mowery (eds.), Technology and Employment, Innovation and Growth in the U.S. Economy, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987. 6
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new knowledge and technologies are disseminated; therefore, it will become Increasingly important for the U.S. engineering work force to be able to accommodate to rapidly changing employment priorities without significant stress or strain. Technological skill allows a company-or a nation-to be competitive, but no single technological achievement yields a lasting competitive advantage.4 "New design and manufacturing strategies are perhaps the most interesting ways of turning technology into advantage."5 The cycle lame for engineering education-on average, four to five years is longer than the cycle time for many new technologies and new products. This means that the demands of industry are more likely now than in the past to change while a student is enrolled in an engineering program; consequently, students need to adapt faster to changing technologies and markets now Dan they did in the past. It seems reasonable to conclude chat adaptability win become increasingly important as a way for the United States to adjust to changes in technology and demand. The committee saw its charge as conducting an exploratory assessment of adaptability. Two basic underlying assumptions informed the committee's deliberations: An adaptable engineering work force is a valuable national asset because it facilitates adjustments to technological change and shifting national priorities through field switching, industrial mobility, or reallocation of work activities among engineering functions. The relationship between adaptability and education and gaining is strong and complex: the type and level of education and Gaining-both in school and on He job-play important roles in creating an adaptable engineering work force; and the need for adaptability can have Important consequences for education and gaining policies.6 A sizable part of the committee's deliberations focuses} on conceptualizing "adaptability" because, like quality, adaptability is easier to recognize clan to define. To a 4"Compeiing Beyond Technology," Harvard Business Review 67(6):93, November-December 1989. SKim B. Clark, "What Strategy Can Do for Technology," Harvard Business Review 676:94-9, November-December 1989. 6Pamela H. Atkinson, "The Relevance of Career-Long Education to Creating and Maintaining an Adaptable Wow Force," a paper prepared for the Workshop on National Needs and Technological Change: Fostering Flexibility in the Engineering Work Force, September 29, 1989. 7
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certain extent, adaptability is lake the archetypal black box: we know Mat the input is an engineering work force with a particular mix of skills and that the output is an engineering work force with a different mix of skins. We also know that overeat market forces have resulted in meeting at least our quantitative needs for engineers in general, and certain kinds of engineers in particular. We do not know about the quality of these adjustments, nor the factors that facilitate and impede them.7 After considerable discussion, the committee agreed to define "adaptability" as the ability to accommodate smoothly and efficiency to changes in demand for engineering work by applying products, processes, sldlls' and resources including knowledge and human resources in different ways; adaptability also refers to the ability to exploit new technologies effectively and quickly. The committee broadly defined the "engineering work force" to include individuals who meet at least one of the following cnteria: earned a degree in engineering; are employed as engineers; identify themselves as engineers based on their education and work experience. These def~ninons are consistent with those used In an earlier NRC study on engineering employment charactenstics.S Although adaptability is not directly observable, it can be infested from mobility patterns among fields, work activities, and sectors of the economy. Therefore, the committee examined the following questions: What is lmown about mobility among engineering fields and between engineering and nonengineenng fields? How much of this movement is mu, and how much is te~minological~hat is, an artifact of how and why tile data on mobility are collected? What are the implications of tills knowledge for education and training policy? Where are the gaps in our knowledge and how can these gaps be closed? The committee commissioned special data tabulations and papers reviewing what the major data bases tell us albeit indirectly-about adaptability. To supplement this quantitative 7Cheryl B. Leggon, "National Needs~and Technological Change: A Background Paper," pnqx~ed for dhe Workshop on National Needs and Technological Change: Fostering Flexibility in Be Engineering Work Force, September 29, 1989. 8Committee on the Education and Utilization of the Engineer, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, Engineering Employment Characteristics, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1985a. 8
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information, case studies were prepared on He fields of chemical engineering, nuclear · · - eng~neenng, and computer science. To assess the extent to which both Be quan~atai~ve and qualitative knowledge bases reflect He actual experiences of engineers-and those who educate, train, employ, and study engineers the committee invited representatives from industry, academe, government, and the professional associations 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 information developed from these ac~avii~es. 9
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Representative terms from entire chapter: