National Academies Press: OpenBook

Engineering in Society (1985)

Chapter: Features of the Present Era

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Suggested Citation:"Features of the Present Era." National Research Council. 1985. Engineering in Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/586.
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Page 5
Suggested Citation:"Features of the Present Era." National Research Council. 1985. Engineering in Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/586.
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Page 6

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 5 A related point concerns the great diversification that the response to demand has created among engineering disciplines over time. The existence of numerous separate branches gives rise to a tendency toward narrow specialization in engineers and their institutions (especially in schools and professional societies). Diversity may thus have reduced the cohesiveness of the engineering profession, so that there is less of the sense of shared commitments and values that is found among other well-established professions. Features of the Present Era In the period since World War II, the most dominant feature of the environment in which engineering has functioned has been change—rapid, even revolutionary change in nearly every aspect of life and work. In this environment, the impact of all the forces noted earlier has intensified. The panel identified four factors of particular importance for the present-day engineering profession: (1) a great expansion of the roles of government; (2) a rapid increase in the amount of information present in daily life and work; (3) the accelerating rate of technology development; and (4) the internationalization of business and the marketplace. The large-scale support of national technological, social, and economic objectives by the federal government in the postwar period has led to a variety of new federal agencies. These in turn have led to a boom in the employment of engineers by government, both directly and indirectly, and to the emergence of new engineering disciplines in response to massive government funding of R&D programs. The scale of government-funded programs, particularly in defense, has caused public/defense needs to surpass the private/commercial market as the primary driver of development in engineering. The major new development in the "information explosion" has of course been the advent of the computer. As a new technology the computer may ultimately surpass the steam engine in its impact on the way business is done and, indeed, on the very nature of business. These machines generate a self- perpetuating demand for the technology they embody. As a result, in the past 15 years there has been a nearly exponential rise in demand for electronics engineers and software and computer engineers, placing considerable stress on the engineering educational system. The revolution in information products has been both a cause and an effect of the great postwar increase in the rate of technology development in general. The overall rate of technological change has come to exert considerable stress on the engineering system. At the same time,

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 6 the rise of powerful international competition in nearly every aspect of technology development and marketing increases the pressure. The rate of technology development, the quality of engineering education, and the role of the engineer in society are all far more critical under such competitive circumstances than they were when American dominance of virtually every technical field was secure. The impacts on the engineering profession are numerous and, in some cases, profound. For example, the trend toward greater specialization has left engineers more vulnerable to "technological obsolescence" in the marketplace. Nevertheless, there has certainly been strong evidence of the profession's adaptability in the face of technological change. The shift from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits in the electronic engineering field is one instance; the very rapid cross-disciplinary movement into the new aerospace field and, more recently, into composite structures provide two more examples. One reason for this flexibility seems to be that engineering is more interdisciplinary than in the past, so that engineers (while highly specialized) are also able to adopt a "systems approach" to their profession. The contemporary environment has also placed a great deal of stress on engineering education. The degree of technological change means that schools are unable to keep laboratory and teaching equipment up to date. Fluctuating industry demand brings shifting patterns of enrollment, with great overenrollments in some disciplines. The problem is exacerbated by chronic faculty shortages. Shifts in the economy and in student attitudes also affect enrollment. Schools in general are not well equipped to deal with these fluctuations. There are also impacts on employment. For example, a growing emphasis on the business aspects of engineering in the postwar period has led many engineers to acquire management training to enhance their professional status and abilities. More generally, the high rate of technological and economic change creates a sense of turbulence in some engineering-oriented industries. Whether there are shortages of engineers or not, this turbulence generates a sense of shortage, compounded by the fact that engineers in high-demand fields switch jobs frequently to obtain higher salaries. In addition, with more public attention to technological matters has come an increase in ethical concerns associated with engineering work, particularly in environment-related fields such as the chemical and automotive industries and in the whole area of nuclear energy (for both power generation and defense). With the expansion of government's role in engineering, significant differences are seen between engineering in government and in indus

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