TNeed for Engineers Won't Fade, but the Demands Will Change


Los Angeles Times, June 1995


To understand the upsets in today's engineering labor market, you have to look at what has historically driven engineering demand-and how that demand is changing.

For most of the 20th Century, three economic currents have influenced demand for the engineering profession. These sources of demand have always moved in cycles, but all are now declining in a way that seems permanent.

The first is the market for commodities. Commodities are largely similar materials that can be produced on a big scale. They include not just natural resources such as copper and crude oil, but also electricity, fresh water and refined sugar. For these industries, engineers build large-scale production and distribution networks. The engineers' challenge is to make products cheaply and to some reasonable degree of quality.

Today's world uses as much of most commodities as it ever has, but over the last 15 years, prices for commodities have been depressed. Without the monetary incentive of high prices, businesses will not finance construction of the mines and refineries and power plants needed to produce commodities, and engineers will not be needed to design the production and distribution systems.

The second major influence on engineering employment is defense spending. The shrinking Pentagon budget is having a deep and long-lasting depressive effect on engineering demand. Defense spending goes not just for high-tech weaponry, but also for the more prosaic work of base maintenance, airstrip construction and harbor dredging. Day-to-day military requirements are engineering-labor-intensive, and the end of the Cold War has substantially reduced the need for traditional military engineering. The third economic current that has traditionally driven engineering demand is infrastructure spending-from roads and bridges to telephone lines and sewage treatment plants. A testament to the engineering profession's success is how easy it is to forget about infrastructure. Nobody notices having electric power at his fingertips or a freeway to travel on, until an earthquake disrupts those everyday fixtures.

But the share of the economic pie that goes to infrastructure in developed countries has declined in recent decades. One measure of a "developed" country is that it no longer spends a lot on infrastructure. Also, cash-strapped governments find it hard to come up with the money needed to make repairs and improvements. And future infrastructure construction is likely to be increasingly of the type needed in tomorrow's society-fiber-optic information highways, for example, rather than the traditional concrete highways.

This isn't to say that all engineers work in the commodity, defense or infrastructure sectors, but that the ups and downs of these industries have moved overall engineering demand for several generations. With a seemingly permanent decline in the economic importance of all three, the engineering profession must also change if it is to remain a source of high-paying jobs for the middle class.

In the last two decades, engineers have already started to shift away from producing bulk commodities toward making smaller quantities of high-value, specialized products-increasingly, products that are information-intensive. This shift will accelerate in the 21st Century as we move toward an information society. Another recent trend is the tendency of engineers to spend their time enforcing and complying with government regulations-safety rules, environmental rules and transportation rules. However dubious the efficacy of environmental legislation, it certainly has kept a lot of engineers busy.

But transforming the engineer from practical problem solver to bureaucratic rule enforcer will not save the profession. To remain an integral and effective part of society, the engineer must find new markets as a producer of high-value services. In some ways, traditional engineering is a victim of its own success.

At its purest, engineering is about solving problems. After problems are solved, there's no point clinging to them. We cannot and should not expect the old sources of jobs to continue forever.

But if it appears that engineers will not be needed as much in tomorrow's high-technology society, remember that it's the traditional markets for engineering that are in decline, not the need for engineering thinking and problem solving. What drove many of us into engineering in the first place a chance to apply science to meet social and economic demands-is still valid. It is the nature of those demands that is changing.


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