National Academies Press: OpenBook

Engineering Employment Characteristics (1985)

Chapter: 5. Resilience of the Work Force

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Suggested Citation:"5. Resilience of the Work Force." National Research Council. 1985. Engineering Employment Characteristics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/584.
Page 31
Suggested Citation:"5. Resilience of the Work Force." National Research Council. 1985. Engineering Employment Characteristics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/584.
Page 32
Suggested Citation:"5. Resilience of the Work Force." National Research Council. 1985. Engineering Employment Characteristics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/584.
Page 33

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- Resilience of the Work Force Resilience in the engineering work force is desirable, but not readily measured. By resilience we mean basically the ability to adapt smoothly to new circumstances. One example would be effective and reasonably rapid exploitation of new technologies. Another is efficient accommodation to sudden- changes in demand for engineering work entailed by a shift in emphasis from the development of space systems to the revitalization of manufacturing facilities on a massive scale. A classical instance of a true change in technology was the shift from the vacuum- tube to the transistor and related solid-state devices over a period of some 20 years. Typical crash programs include the Apollo manned space program and the drive to improve the nation's energy efficiency, sparked by the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s. The engineering community appears to have reacted with relative dispatch in both cases. On-the whole, it can be argued that in no instance since World War II have deficiencies in the quantity or quality of the engineering effort constrained the development of new, high-priority technologies for technically based programs or the application of new or existing tech- nologies; social, political, and economic factors have posed far more serious constraints. It can also be argued, however, that the application of the nation's most capable engineering resources to "priority" issues may have diverted attention from other pressing engineering tasks. Current U.S. industrial problems and reduced industrial growth sug- gest a need for concurrent, quantum development rather than sequen 31

32 ENGINEERING EMPLOYMENT CHARACTERISTICS tial, incremental efforts. They suggest as well that a larger technical resource would provide a stronger economy and would improve the quality of life. A degree of resilience is built into the practice of engineering. The broad content of physical and engineering science in present undergrad- uate curriculums permits mechanical engineers, for example, to han- dle work in electrical engineering, or electrical engineers to become aerospace engineers. This is especially true during an engineer's first decade out of college. A key to this form of resilience is the universality of physical and mathematical principles. Advanced engineering programs involving innovative products and processes must find leaders among those who conceive or understand the development that is the impetus for the work. Nevertheless, the relevance of fundamental scientific principles can provide a basis for valuable contributions by engineers trained during a prior state of art. Companies must have the resilience to be able to cope at times with sudden surges in demand for engineering work over finite periods. Again, the universality of scientific and mathematical principles per- mits the use of contract engineering firms or self-employed engineers to augment in-house staff as required. The true extent of such contract consulting support, however, is not accurately quantifiable. Technological Obsolescence An important element of resilience in engineering is technical cur- rency. Both companies and individual engineers can become techno- logically obsolescent. Engineering schools update their programs and curriculums in response to academic and industrial R&D that produces significant changes in technology, but the process is protracted and has little immediate effect on the engineering work force. Thus, achieving technical currency within a business is the responsibility of manage- ment. Continuing education to upgrade the capabilities of personnel, including technicians, can be effective, and accelerated programs are sometimes used. There is a tendency to equate obsolescence in individuals with age, but this view is usually oversimplified. Depending on the discipline, obsolescence can begin to overtake engineers as early as 10 years after graduation. Those who wish to stay abreast of developments in their fields can read the literature and generally have access to formal courses or other programs offered by their employers, their professional soci- eties, or educational institutions; however, there is reason for concern

RESILIENCE OF THE WORK FORCE 33 that far too few participate in such programs. The critical factor is motivation. Over time, engineers' interests can shift from purely tech- nical matters to other important aspects of the technological enter- prise. Up to the present time, many experienced engineers have served industry extremely well in jobs that often did not require state-of-the- art knowledge or that required it only in a narrow area. In today's fast- paced, worldwide competition, however, it is increasingly recognized that a technological edge is a prerequisite for the development of suc- cessful products and services. In view of their need to do continuously useful work today, techno- logical obsolescence for engineers must be recognized as a problem. Increasingly, it is management's job to provide an atmosphere that motivates the individual engineer to remain up to date technically. Computer-based tools continue to change the practice of engineering dramatically and challenge the engineer's ability to remain current.

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