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Page 65 5 Maintaining Flexibility in an Age of Stress and Rapid Change Chapter 4 established a general framework for assessing the adequacy of the engineering supply system, from the point of view of both society and the engineering profession. Based on experience up to the present time, a variety of general conclusions were reached about the importance of flexibility and adaptability among engineers and within the disciplines at critical junctures in the nation's industrial/technological development. Basically, the panel finds that the system can respond (and has responded to changing demand for three reasons: (1) the engineering educational system is flexible enough to adapt institutionally and pedagogically to new requirements; (2) students react quickly to economic signals in opting for or against an engineering career and in choosing specific fields of engineering study; and (3) historically, change has seldom occurred more rapidly than individual engineers could adapt. But a number of characteristics of the engineering institutional infrastructure were pointed out as being potential weaknesses in the system, in the face of emerging economic, technological, and social stresses. The general conclusions set forth earlier on the adequacy and functionality of the system were necessarily tentative, acknowledging the fact that the environment in which the system operates is changing rapidly. What was lacking was some means of understanding more clearly how the system might function under possible future conditions. Accordingly, the panel undertook to project a number of potential scenarios of situations affecting engineering and to use past events
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Page 66 as a basis for estimating the response of the engineering manpower supply system. The results of the scenario evaluations are summarized later in this chapter. How Well Is the System Working? The primary questions to ask in judging the adequacy of the engineering manpower supply system as configured today regard its current responsiveness (in both quantity and quality) and its potential for adapting to future conditions. Does the Supply Meet the Demand? In general, the supply of engineers to meet industrial needs and societal goals has proven to be adequate in the past. The response to demand has occurred via three mechanisms. First, engineering schools have accommodated large fluctuations in student throughput; they have also adapted organizationally to pressures for different forms of interdisciplinary engineering study (e.g., environmental engineering). This process has been largely reactivethat is, the institutions tend to be conservative and to make such adjustments only when they are thrust upon them. Consequently, organizational changes and associated changes in curricula have often lagged behind changing demand. Nevertheless, the panel finds that, in general, this element of the system has worked. Second, individual practitioners have adapted to changing technology in their field by acquiring new knowledge and mastering new skills. Often this is a function of exposure to new technology on the job. In other cases it is a matter of individuals extending their capabilities through some form of continuing education, either within the company or by means of formal course work pursued on their own initiative. When rapid technological change does occur in a particular field (e.g., the introduction of integrated circuits), engineers already working in that field are generally better positioned to keep abreast of those innovations than are (for example) students. Third, transdisciplinary movement of engineers has occasionally been of major importance in supplying engineers to meet an emerging demand. There are usually enough generic similarities between a new application (spacecraft, for example) and existing ones (e.g., aircraft, submarines, automobiles, and other vehicles) so that specialists in a particular area can transfer their knowledge into the new field with relative ease. The organizational aspects of R&D and production in
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Page 67 different fields are sufficiently alike that the difficulty of "plugging in" to a project effort in a different field is minimized for a practicing engineer. These three mechanisms have enabled demand for engineers to be adequately met, in general, in the present era. There have occasionally been temporary shortages of engineers in specific fields; in recent years this has been the case in electronics and computer engineering. But, thus far, these shortages appear to have been rectified within a reasonable period of time, and before damage was done to either the domestic or international competitive strength of companies entering new areas of technology development. Is the Quality of the "Product" Adequate? The initial output of the engineering manpower supply system is, of course, the engineering graduate. Whether this human "product" is adequate to meet the needs of industry is a subject of varying degrees of debate from one industry to another. Clearly, in those fields where change is the most rapid and productivity is the most critical, the pressure for high-quality entry-level engineering employees will be most intense. Currently in the high-tech fieldsparticularly computers and manufacturing automationthe issue of quality in engineering graduates is being examined closely. The question of quality has essentially three facets: (1) whether engineering graduates come equipped with enough knowledge in their area of specialization; (2) whether, by contrast, graduates possess adequate breadth of multidisciplinary skills; and (3) whether these new employees are sufficiently oriented toward work in the "real world"that is, whether they write and communicate well and are quick to learn how they fit into the organization and how to work productively on a project team. Different facets of the contemporary graduate are criticized by different industry groups at different times. Perhaps the only consistent criticism is in the third area, and to some extent the first, in that (based on informal surveys by panel members) new hires often require a considerable period of in-house training before they are capable of functioning productively, confidently, and autonomously in their jobs. Related to this is a criticism by some employers of the large math/science component in the educational background of their new employees. The objection is that the resulting theoretical orientation is impractical for a young engineer on the job in many types of engineering work. In a less obvious sense, another output of the engineering supply system is the engineers who move into new areas and new disciplines
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Page 68 in response to emerging demands. The quality of these ''products" is relevant as well. However, because their adequacy has apparently never been a subject of open concern in industry, presumably such engineers are satisfactorily meeting the demands of positions and responsibilities they obtain. Can the System Function Under Projected Future Conditions? Potential Scenarios of the Future As was pointed out in Chapter 1, one of the main purposes of this report is to ask the engineering profession: "Where have we been; where are we now; and where do we go from here?" Previous chapters have attempted to answer the first two parts of that question. Based on inferences drawn from that analysis, it should be possible to project the future functionality of engineering. It must be pointed out, however, that to attempt such predictions in a broad sense would be futile. There are too many unknowns, too many variables external to the engineering system, to give any hope of accuracy in assessing the future in general. Since engineering is not a closed system, there can be no satisfactory predictive models. However, it is possible to examine the functioning of engineering under well-defined but hypothetical situations. Therefore, the panel's approach was to propose a set of circumstances ("scenarios") that might occur and that would have an impact on engineering. Their actual likelihood or unlikelihood was not considered to be crucial. The assumption was that it is possible to select isolated events of sufficient range so as to test the capacity of the engineering system for handling stressful change.1 The scenarios examined were: 1. Continued development toward unmanned factory operation, resulting in the United States regaining world leadership in "smokestack" industries (or, alternatively, losing its competitiveness in manufacturing altogether). 2. Attainment of a recognized capability for commercial utilization of space facilitated by reliable space transportation and permanent in-orbit space manufacturing and laboratory facilities. 1 The selection of scenarios to be examined was based on panel discussion of events that were deemed (a) possible within a roughly 10–15 year time frame and (b) at least potentially capable of exerting severe stress on engineering practice and/or the engineering supply system. Some 15 potential scenarios were considered; 6 were selected for evaluation. Individual panel members were assigned to write one scenario, in which they attempted to project the likely sequence of events and the impact on engineering. Each scenario was then discussed by the full panel.
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Page 69 3. A major new environmental crisis: large-scale contamination of groundwater resources. 4. Widespread adoption of automated teaching via computer. 5. Rapid shift to use of composite materials as a replacement for metals. 6. Sharp fluctuations in the federal budget for defense R&D. The analysis of the six hypothetical scenarios provided a set of "windows" on the future of the engineering supply system. In each case the panel speculated on what the impact on the engineering community would be, and determined whether (and by what means) the system could cope with the specified circumstances. Significance of the Scenarios None of the scenarios appeared to exceed the capacity of the engineering community and the engineering supply system to respond and adapt. This is certainly a positive reflection of the flexibility of the system as currently configured and as demonstrated on several occasions in the recent past. But that is not to say that there would be no pain associated with the response to those conditions; indeed, short-term stresses would in most cases be severe for engineering schools, for companies, and for individual engineers. It should also be pointed out that the hypothetical scenarios were examined in isolation, as if each one were the only unusual stress being felt by engineering at a given time. In reality, it is likely that two or more such events would be taking place simultaneously, with combined effects that would be much more difficult to predictand, possibly, to withstand. For example, at the present time there are a number of new technologies whose emergence is not a matter of speculation; they are just arriving or just over the horizon. These include: • Computer-aided design (CAD), manufacturing (CAM), and engineering (CAE) • Biotechnology • Artificial intelligence • Fusion reactors • Space-based weapons systems (lasers, particle beams, etc.). Each of these technologies will have a significant impact on engineering education and practice, particularly when taken collectively. A wide variety of other scenarios can also be projected, most of them no less likely to occur than those that the panel chose to examine. Some of these might be:
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Page 70 • A major worldwide depression • A strong economic resurgence leading to a "boom" economy • A critical shortfall of essential materials (e.g.,oil) • A widespread resurgence of antitechnology sentiment • A quadrupling of the cost of education. Because of the uncertainty about what eventsand how manymight occur that would affect engineering, it cannot be simply assumed that the engineering supply system is well equipped to meet any conceivable future. Each of the scenarios would create stress within the engineering community; even today there are numerous problems of engineering manpower supply, particularly in the area of education. In the context of a discussion of flexibility, it would be well to look specifically at these current stresses. Where Are the Greatest Stresses Appearing in the System? Under current conditions, a number of points of particular stress can be identified in the engineering community and the engineering supply system. Some of the stress points are perhaps temporary, while others are more long term in their effects; but no attempt is made here to distinguish them on that basis. Instead, they are divided into those that primarily affect the engineering educational system and those that place stress on the engineering community in general. Educational System Stresses • The undercapitalization of engineering education; that is, inadequate funding for plant, laboratory equipment, and faculty salaries. • Overloading of engineering-school classrooms and, conversely, the rejection of some qualified applicants. • Divergent pressures regarding educational content (more specialization versus generalist technical training versus more liberal arts study). General Stresses • Technological obsolescence or displacement of engineers, brought about by both new technology (including automation) and discontinuous change in technology. • Diminishing pool of 18-year-olds over the next 15 years, resulting in reduced engineering personnel supply.
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Page 71 • Dominance of government demand for engineering goods and services in the marketplace. • Fluctuating societal attitudes toward engineering and technology, which influence the demand for engineering-intensive products. • The increased emphasis on factory automation and new manufacturing processes. • Increased demand for and perceived shortages of engineers trained in information and computer sciences.
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