Open issues

Are engineering roles narrowing and what would be the consequences for engineering education, engineers' identity and society's view of engineering?

In 1961 Howard Rase wrote that engineers needed to take on responsibilities beyond those associated with their immediate technical roles so as to avoid becoming servants of others. It is interesting to speculate whether engineers have managed to maintain this professional broadness or rather have been confined more and more to purely technical job descriptions over the intervening years.

One piece of evidence comes from Erin Cech, Kara Boettcher and Heidi Sherick [1].

The shrinking job description

In their paper, Cech, Boettcher and Sherick note that graduating well rounded engineers remains an important goal of the education system in the USA. In achieving this, not only does the individual engineer benefit but also the profession as well if engineers are seen by the public to be involved in solving wider, socially important problems.

The authors looked at whether there was evidence for this by carrying out an analysis of the engineering sub-set of data from the National Science Foundation's National Survey of College Graduates. In particular, they looked at how job descriptions of engineers as whole were changing. They examined three indicators: respondents' job title, the daily tasks that make up the work of engineers, and the proximity of that work to their engineering degrees.

They found that the percentage of engineers engaged in non-technical jobs decreased over 10 years (1993 to 2003), the percentage of engineers with strictly technical job descriptions increased, and there was also a percentage increase in the number of respondents who reported that their occupations were completely related to their engineering degrees. The authors concluded that there was a trend to narrowing of roles because engineers were hyper-specialising and were less professionally involved in broader roles.

The authors noted that on one hand, a narrowing may seem like good news but there also could be a number of troubling consequences for engineering education, the type of work carried out by engineers, and the overall social conception of engineering. The negative consequences include:

  • hyper-specialisation may end up producing highly trained engineers who are lacking the broader skills which make other professions successful,
  • as engineering jobs become more narrow, engineering roles are beginning to merge with those of technicians and, as a consequence, job satisfaction would be reduced, engineers would be isolated from business and management, and the balance between professional autonomy and bureaucratic loyalty would be upset, leading to questions about the professionalism of engineering, and
  • excessive fragmentation of job functions would be a threat to the unity of engineering as a profession and lead to a degradation of the social status of engineers as perceived by the public.

It seems at least plausible that that which Howard Rase warned against is coming to pass. A rethink on how engineering should be practiced would be a useful contribution.


Erin Cech, Kara Boettcher and Heidi Sherick
The Incredible Shrinking Job Description:
Trends and Consequences of an Increasingly Technical Engineering Profession
American Society for Engineering Education Conference, 2007