Page 53

4
Engineering and Social Dynamics

In previous chapters we have examined the development of the engineering profession in America and drawn some tentative observations about the nature of its actions and reactions, in earlier periods as well as recent times, with respect to the larger society of which it is a part. In this chapter we attempt to consolidate those historical characteristics and tendencies into a more generalized model of the dynamic interactions of engineering with the larger society. We discuss the effects of those interactions on the profession and society as a whole, and attempt to establish some key areas where functional problems may exist now or in the future.

Fluctuating Supply and Demand

The Societal Demand-Pull Factor

A principal driver of technology development is societal demand for goods and services. Furthermore, an advancing technology itself tends to stimulate demand, if the technology accords with existing societal needs. Societal attitudes toward engineering and technology development also have a major impact on the type and level of demand for engineering-related goods and services. The demand for technological goods and services translates into demand by industry and government for engineers in different disciplines. This is the "demand-pull" factor. Industry is highly specific about the kinds and mixes of skills it



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 53
Page 53 4 Engineering and Social Dynamics In previous chapters we have examined the development of the engineering profession in America and drawn some tentative observations about the nature of its actions and reactions, in earlier periods as well as recent times, with respect to the larger society of which it is a part. In this chapter we attempt to consolidate those historical characteristics and tendencies into a more generalized model of the dynamic interactions of engineering with the larger society. We discuss the effects of those interactions on the profession and society as a whole, and attempt to establish some key areas where functional problems may exist now or in the future. Fluctuating Supply and Demand The Societal Demand-Pull Factor A principal driver of technology development is societal demand for goods and services. Furthermore, an advancing technology itself tends to stimulate demand, if the technology accords with existing societal needs. Societal attitudes toward engineering and technology development also have a major impact on the type and level of demand for engineering-related goods and services. The demand for technological goods and services translates into demand by industry and government for engineers in different disciplines. This is the "demand-pull" factor. Industry is highly specific about the kinds and mixes of skills it

OCR for page 53
Page 54 requires in engineers it wishes to employ. Yet the nature of these demands changes rapidly in response to the changing business, technological, and general economic environment. Substantial changes in the pattern of government demand—particularly in the defense area—are increasingly a major factor. In a context of rapid technological advancement and numerous weaknesses in the educational system, it has become more difficult for industry's changing expectations to be met within the confines of the present system. Therefore, there are movements in the direction of industry's modifying its demands or joining with schools in an effort to improve the quality of the supply of young engineers. The demand-pull for engineers and engineering products is quite different from the "supply-push," which is the principal driver for scientists and scientific research findings. Indeed, the supply-push of scientific advances is one of the primary stimulants to industry demand for engineers. This difference in motivations and dependencies is a major factor in the different societal perceptions (and professional roles) of engineers and scientists. Mechanisms for Meeting the Demand There are serious questions about whether the educational system, organized along disciplinary lines that were formed in the nineteenth century, is adequate for responding to today's business and technical problems. The same nineteenth-century divisions are reflected in the professional societies and associations, reinforcing the compartmental nature of engineering. The compartmentalization found in engineering institutions suggests that it would be difficult for new disciplines to develop in response to new societal demand. But this has not been the case. Hybrid fields such as environmental, nuclear, aerospace, and computer engineering have emerged rather quickly to meet demands in recent decades. There was little resistance by the established educational infrastructure. In practice, engineering schools were eager to accommodate the new growth areas. Among practicing engineers there has been considerable movement across professional boundaries to meet the needs of an emerging technology—as seen in the aerospace field and, most recently, in the composite structures area. Apart from internal adjustments, another mechanism by which the supply of engineers is adjusted to meet demand is the use of foreign engineers, trained in the United States, to fill shortages. This is particu-

OCR for page 53
Page 55 larly true in the case of Ph.D. engineers, since a disproportionate number of current U.S. doctoral candidates are foreign nationals. There is a fine line between shortage and surplus of engineers. To a great extent the existence of either one is a matter of individual perception. But any deviation (real or perceived) from a balance between the two tends to cause turbulence in the profession and in industry. This problem is intensified by the fact that demand tends to alter more quickly than supply can be adjusted—it takes at least four years to educate an engineer. Thus there is necessarily an out-of-phase quality to the time frames in which demand and supply operate. By and large, however, there has been sufficient flexibility in engineering education, and in the profession as a whole, to meet past needs. Yet there have been significant changes in societal attitudes and values, as well as in the nature and scope of business, that will affect the demand for engineers and engineering-related products. The elasticity of the supply system will be tested. It remains to be seen whether it can continue to function adequately under current and future conditions. Factors Limiting Supply Response In an assessment of the adequacy of the engineer supply system a number of important variables come into play. One of these is the makeup of the pool of incoming engineering students, in terms of both demographics and academic ability. Census data indicate that the number of 18-year-olds in the population began to decline in 1982, and will continue to fall off until the mid-1990s. It is true that a higher percentage of students have been opting for engineering studies in recent years, but that percentage is variable, so that the overall drop in number of students entering college may become significant for engineering enrollments in the future. An offsetting trend currently is the fact that more women have been entering engineering programs. The percentage of undergraduate female students is now around 15 percent nationwide, but the increase in female enrollments has slowed markedly in the past two years (Engineering Manpower Commission, 1984). Enrollments of Orientals are quite high: 4.2 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in 1983, for example, went to Asian/Pacific graduates; in California, Orientals accounted for a full 32 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees (Panel on Engineering Graduate Education and Research, 1985). However, enrollments of other minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, remain low. Apart from quantities, another limiting factor is the variable ability

OCR for page 53
Page 56 or preparedness of the student pool. Engineering deans report that SAT scores of entering engineering students are at an all-time high, and have recently surpassed those of liberal arts majors for the first time. Interest in engineering over the past several years has been such that the better-quality schools have had to turn away applicants with strong qualifications, for lack of room. This presents a problem in itself, since it means that potentially talented students are not able to acquire a high-quality engineering education. An interesting corollary of the increased attractiveness of engineering is that the demographics of engineering students have also changed recently: engineering deans and faculty note that many more students are now coming from the suburban middle and upper-middle class. A different factor that may have implications for engineering supply in the future is that, in general, the level of math and science literacy in the secondary-school population is declining (see, for example, National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Although test scores of current engineering-school entrants are higher than ever, the scores of the overall pool are lower than ever. This trend, if it continues, cannot help affecting the quality of engineering students in the future, particularly as student career choices seem to be strongly affected by shifts in the perceived employment prospects for a given field. The antitechnology sentiment is an underlying current that may once again become overt, as it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because such shifts in perception affect the nature of demand for technological goods and services, they also affect the demand for engineering personnel, and thus indirectly the supply as well. Current engineering students are among the most able in their age cohort. If engineering were to become less popular as a career choice, the drop in quality of applicants could be precipitous. In addition, the fall-off in overall math/science literacy must be viewed against a backdrop of greatly increasing emphasis on math and science in engineering by the year 2000. Salaries of engineers have been a strong point in attracting students, particularly during the recent inflation/recession cycle. But it is becoming widely recognized that, after the initial five years in industry, engineering salaries tend to flatten out in comparison to other professions (in fact, even in comparison to some skilled workers) (Engineering Manpower Commission, 1983a, 1983b). If there are indeed shortages of engineers, salaries do not reflect that fact. Concern about this and the related issue of quick obsolescence of the engineer may combine to reduce interest in engineering as a career, if the economy continues to improve.

OCR for page 53
Page 57 Adaptability in the Educational System The focus of the delivery system for engineers is the engineering educational system, where stresses resulting from changes in the nature and intensity of demand are felt most acutely. Under pressure on the one hand from industry to provide specifically trained graduates, and on the other from students and many professional groups to provide versatile professional education under adverse classroom conditions, engineering schools must be resilient. Engineering education is subjected to conflicting pressures over the type of preparation it should provide. Essentially three divergent approaches are represented: (1) greater specialization; (2) broader, more general technical education; and (3) the inclusion of far more general content (e.g., liberal arts) in the engineering curriculum. Arguments For and Against Specialization The engineering profession has always undergone pressure to strongly specialize engineering education. Industry in particular is often insistent that students do not specialize early enough in their education. This belief tends to be reinforced by engineering faculty within the various disciplines. At the same time, as panel members from industry report, many practicing engineers regret that they did not focus more intensively on their areas of specialization while in school. However, because of changing technology and demand it is likely that many engineers will find themselves working outside the discipline in which they were educated at some point during their careers. Also, within a given discipline, engineers are likely to find themselves learning and using new skills. This transdisciplinary movement has already occurred on a large scale several times in the past, and the capacity of engineers to accomplish it successfully has been valuable to industry and to the nation. Thus, educational institutions should be cautious about becoming more compartmentalized and providing more specialized training. Instead, what is needed is a good balance of specialization and breadth of courses in the individual's program as well as in the overall curriculum. There is a persistent school of thought that argues that, in addition to a broad engineering education, engineers should receive a much more thorough grounding in nontechnical subjects. The rationale here is that exposure to the more traditional elements of a broad, general education

OCR for page 53
Page 58 would make engineers more well rounded, and thus stronger professionals and better, more flexible engineers. However it is best accomplished, it seems clear that the uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in the current period argue for a greater, rather than lesser, flexibility in the educational system and its graduates. Some alternatives to greater specialization are emerging that may help to bring about this result. Alternative Approaches One useful approach involves emphasis on basic studies—generalized "core" courses for all engineers—in the first two or even three years. This approach is not new—the University of California at Los Angeles was perhaps the first to attempt it, in 1945—but it need not be new to be valid. The basic-studies approach has been successful in the past, and is still being applied by universities today. Another older practice that still has value is the five-year degree program. Most such programs have been discontinued because of economic competition from four-year programs. Some schools continue to offer the five-year degree as an option, but Dartmouth College is probably alone in maintaining it as a requirement. The extra year affords the opportunity for stronger grounding in the basics (and perhaps in nontechnical subjects) along with greater specialization. Yet another approach is the "cooperative" program offered by a number of schools, which features several school terms spent working in industry. This approach has the advantage of offsetting the additional expense of a fifth year (through salaries) while affording the student an opportunity to become oriented to work in the "real world" and to make valuable contacts in industry. Another trend that should be noted is the emergence of the "engineering technology" degree program at several major universities. In addition to providing a broad technical education, these programs train students in drafting and other mechanical skills that are no longer required of engineering school graduates. Many engineering tasks nowadays do not demand a full range of "old" and "new'' skills simultaneously. Thus, the engineering technology degree affords companies the advantage of more differentiated staffing. Another major alternative to greater specialization in engineering schools is afforded by continuing education. Many large industrial corporations now provide some degree of postbaccalaureate training in-house. Many others do not. The expense involved is great (indeed, small companies often cannot afford to offer training at all), but if

OCR for page 53
Page 59 industry does not feel that schools are turning out a product suitable for its needs, or if experienced engineers are felt to require some "retooling," this is certainly an effective approach. Industry training is not the only avenue of continuing education, however. Schools offer part-time and evening curricula geared to the practicing engineer, particularly in urban areas. This option is often taken solely on the initiative of the individual engineer, perhaps with tuition reimbursement; there is also the possibility of corporations offering part-time daytime schooling as an employee benefit for engineers in certain specializations. Other opportunities for continuing education are offered by professional societies and commercial houses in the form of short courses, seminars, and correspondence courses. Finally, computer-aided instruction at home is becoming increasingly viable with the spread of home computers. The panel expects course-ware offered through this medium to become quite diversified and sophisticated. Thus, there are many opportunities for continuing education, with the majority of them available to any engineer. The Impact of Technological Change on Employment In early nineteenth-century England, as the Industrial Revolution was taking place in that country, sporadic outbursts of sabotage of looms and other steam-powered factory machinery began to occur. The attacks were being made by groups of workmen inspired by the example of Ned Ludd, a possibly mythical Leicestershire weaver. These spontaneous protests by "Luddites" actually delayed the implementation of new technology in certain English industrial centers. In the present day, the shadow of the Luddite rebellion continues to fall across the concept of automation as one of the potential consequences of technological change. Potential Impacts on Society In terms of effects on employment in general, the most significant technological change in the offing is automation—in its modern form, the introduction of computerized systems (whether robotic or not) in the workplace that replace or obviate human workers. One result is technological unemployment or "displacement" of workers. This is a potent political and economic issue. Technology ("mechanization") was blamed by some for joblessness during the Depression, although the actual causes were quite different (Layton, 1973). It is not even certain that large-scale job displacement will now take place. It is likely

OCR for page 53
Page 60 instead to be a highly dynamic process, with adjustments being made continuously (Office of Technology Assessment, 1984). However, whether or not severe displacement does occur, the panel believes that public perception of it is the key issue. It may well be that, like environmental issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns about the employment effects of emerging technologies will now be the basis for strong frictions in society. These concerns may do more harm to both human and engineering interests than the environmental issue did and must therefore be addressed explicitly. The outlook is for substantial displacement of workers over the short run in both the manufacturing and service sectors. The latter is often overlooked; in fact, automation may displace service-sector jobs at a rapid rate. One has only to think of word processing machines with remote printers that greatly increase the output of the individual (and are increasingly used by professionals rather than typists), or large copying machines that auto-feed at high speed, collate, and bind automatically, to begin to envision the scale of effects on the office alone. In any case, it is impossible to predict the amount of displacement that will occur in either the service or manufacturing sector—too many variables are involved. We do not know, for example, how the growth of the service sector is affecting technology, or how technology will respond to new services. The rate of implementation is an unknown, as is the capacity of workers to adapt by any of a number of means. Another important unknown is the degree of resistance that American workers will demonstrate against the implementation of the new technologies. It is certain that automation will also create jobs at a substantial rate in both the service and manufacturing sectors, although in the service fields these will probably be lower-skilled, low-wage jobs in health services, food services, etc. However, the panel believes that new jobs in this sector will not offset jobs lost or diminished through the introduction of automation. Taking the long view, the panel concludes that it is possible to be optimistic about the effects of increasing automation on general employment. The economy has historically been very inventive in creating new jobs. Because changes in technology usually bring new industries and increases in demand, they generally alter employment rather than reduce it—although the time-scale can be sufficiently long so that harm to individuals is not prevented. For example, people were displaced from cottage-industry weaving in Europe in the eighteenth century by "automated" looms; but a century later even greater numbers were employed in industrial weaving. Because career mobility is

OCR for page 53
Page 61 greater today, individuals can more often avoid economic harm. In the United States, people displaced from mining and manufacturing from the 1950s on have tended to enter the burgeoning services sector. It is important, however, not to let such generalizations about trends mask the fact that the negative impact of technological change in many individual lives can still be profound. The essential point is that, if change is managed well by society, improvement (rather than deterioration) of the quality of life is quite possible. A case in point is the gradual reduction in hours worked per week since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The spread of ''flex-time" in recent years is perhaps a sign that even the 8-hour workday is beginning to give way to what could become a less-than-40-hour workweek. Labor savings are, after all, one of the major reasons behind the development of automation technologies. There is no reason to believe that their introduction will necessarily have catastrophic effects on society. Potential Impacts on Engineering Employment In the context of engineering employment, technological change has impacts not only through automation of manual tasks, but also in the form of new technology and discontinuous change in technology. (The production of a controlled atomic fission reaction might represent the first, while the invention of the transistor is an example of the second.) We have examined a few cases of the emergence of new disciplines in response to demand for a new technology, as well as the response of engineers to the rapid obsolescence of an established technology. In both cases, as long as the change was not too sudden, engineers and the educational system adapted successfully. The effects of automation on engineering employment are somewhat different, and should be examined separately. There will be considerable displacement of engineers brought about by the implementation, in the manufacturing sector, of computer-aided design and manufacturing systems (Office of Technology Assessment, 1984). It may be that fewer engineers will be required to prepare designs, or to program and monitor robots or flexible manufacturing systems. Much drafting and analysis will be computerized, as will a great deal of documentation. The overall number of engineers employed in this sector may therefore decline. Nevertheless, with reductions of the work force in general, engineers will (in the opinion of the panel) represent a higher percentage of the manufacturing work force than they now do. Manufacturing will become more engineering-intensive.

OCR for page 53
Page 62 The outlook for job creation in engineering is possibly better than for production workers. There is now a noticeable call for more manufacturing engineers, a discipline traditionally associated with the "smokestack industries." Contemporary manufacturing engineers will have an important role to play in the application of computers and advanced technology to the manufacturing process. Many engineers will enter the service sector to join consulting firms offering turnkey systems and system start-up and/or operating services. Perceptions of jobs gained and lost, and of the quality of engineering work in the automated environment, will affect the choices of young people regarding engineering study. Environmental issues influenced students' choice of disciplines as well as the nature and directions of the practice of that discipline. If technological unemployment is to be the next "environmental-type" issue for engineering, similar impacts on choices and directions may occur. Roles and Responsibility for Intervention Just as in the case of environmental problems in the 1970s, the government may have to intervene (directly or indirectly) in labor displacement if the application of technology is to proceed smoothly. This seems essential from a pragmatic as well as human-welfare point of view: Society will have to make provisions for severe technological unemployment to avoid a modern recurrence of the Luddite phenomenon. Industry is not and cannot be responsible for the social consequences of decisions taken to ensure survival in the marketplace—although many companies do attempt to take such consequences into account in their business behavior. The formula that is frequently expressed (initially by James Baker, vice-president of General Electric) is "automate, liquidate, or emigrate," with companies threatening to take production offshore if workers and unions will not accept automation. Workers have already tried to prevent both by lawsuits, strikes, and other means; efforts to resist may intensify in the future. Industry and government ought to attempt to find alternatives and solutions in the meantime. There are surely more choices than to automate, liquidate, or emigrate. Carefully thought-out social and technological interventions are needed. What is the responsibility of the engineering profession in coping with this problem? It should recognize that technological unemployment is a major challenge for the present and the immediate future but also insist that it is not the responsibility of engineers to meet that challenge alone. In fact, it is largely a social problem, one with strong

OCR for page 53
Page 63 political implications. Engineering professional societies should be aware of the problem, and engineering education should be structured to inculcate in the student the knowledge that engineering is a social enterprise, having social ramifications, and that the innovation and management of complex technical systems often involve considerations of this sort. Here is, in fact, an instance of the value of the kind of "socialization" of engineering education that was urged earlier in the report. In the end, it may be possible for engineers to devise means to automate that accomplish the goal of increased productivity while being sensitive to human interactions and consequences. Society's Responsibility to the Engineering Profession Nearly all of the report thus far has emphasized the responsibility of the engineering profession to society in general and the degree of success it has had in meeting those responsibilities. This emphasis is an appropriate one; the profession exists to serve the needs of the larger community. However, it is also important to consider the responsibility that society has to maintain conditions necessary for the continued health of the engineering profession. "Society," in this instance, includes all those entities that benefit from the engineering function—whether they be government, industries, corporations, or individual consumers. Two primary considerations emerge in this context. The first is the question of whether engineers in general are adequately compensated for their services. An argument can easily be made that compensation of engineers is not commensurate with the value of their contribution to society. The panel believes that the economic productivity of engineers, compared with that of other professionals such as lawyers and financial managers, for example, is high. Yet an informal comparison of incomes shows a great disparity between engineers and those groups. The problem is not at the entry level; beginning engineers earn salaries that are among the highest in any professional grouping (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1983). It occurs, instead, throughout the middle and later years in the career path—years in which other professionals can expect to reap the rewards (in financial terms) of their experience and seniority. Inadequate compensation for mid-career engineers in academia produces "salary compression," which in turn helps to drive some engineering faculty out of teaching. In industry, it produces a virtual flight of experienced engineers out of technical work and into engineering management, and even into nonengineering fields (Guterl, 1984). This problem is deeply rooted in the nature of our economy and

OCR for page 53
Page 64 its system of rewards. It is also one that would be extremely difficult (and expensive) to solve. However, a report on the subject of engineers vis-à-vis society would be remiss if it did not at least point out the problem. The second major issue regarding society's responsibility to engineers relates to the government demand patterns discussed earlier. Although the engineering profession has shown considerable flexibility in responding to past shifts in government demand, the ability of the profession to meet those needs is only one side of the picture. On the other side, considerable hardship is entailed for many engineers in the process—especially for the most experienced engineers. Massive layoffs in defense industries such as aerospace, for example, inevitably put many individuals out of work for long periods of time. Viewing the matter strictly in investment terms, the panel believes that a considerable inefficiency in the use of the nation's technical resources is involved. Given the rapidity with which government demand can change, and the scale of change involved, it does not seem appropriate to rely completely on the engineering profession to make the great adjustments necessary to meet those demands. The federal government should consider the possibility of providing some form of support network for engineers in industries affected by shifts in program funding. Such a network could include as components retraining programs, compensation packages, and even professional relocation. If similar support is extended to manufacturing workers in changing industries such as the automobile industry, it makes sense to conserve the even more valuable resource embodied in engineering talent, which represents a substantial investment of public funds for engineering education and on-the-job training acquired in government-related development programs.