The Image of Engineering

Something’s wrong with the public perception of engineering. A recent Gallup poll found that only 2 percent of the respondents associated engineers with the word “invents” and only 3 percent associated them with the word “creative,” whereas 5 percent associated them with the phrase “train operator.” This perception is not only unappealing, it’s profoundly inaccurate! It may help explain why U.S. students are losing interest in engineering.

Enrollment of engineering majors is down 20 percent from its 1983 peak at the same time that overall college enrollment has increased. The picture is especially grim for minorities. Whereas overall engineering enrollment has dropped 3 percent since 1992, minority enrollment has fallen 9 percent, and African-American enrollment has plummeted 17 percent. Enrollment by women, which had been climbing steadily, has been stuck on a plateau just below 20 percent of all enrollees for the past few years. All of this is in spite of high starting salaries. I can only conclude that there is something in student’s perception of engineering that is so repugnant that they are not attracted to it despite the salaries it offers.

In reality, engineering is a profoundly creative profession, but the Gallup poll clearly shows that the public does not perceive it that way. If engineering is to serve the nation, it must reverse that perception and attract young people who are seeking stimulating and creative work. Both to be, and to be perceived to be, more creative, it must increase the diversity of the engineering workforce, because diversity is the gene pool of creativity. I mean “diversity” in two ways: the common meaning of collective diversity or workforce composition, and individual diversity or the breadth of experience of individual engineers.

What do engineers do?

My favorite quick definition of what engineers do is “design under constraint.” We design things to solve real problems, but not just any solution will do. Our solutions must satisfy constraints of cost, weight, size, ergonomic factors, environmental impact, reliability, safety, manufacturability, repairability, and so on. Finding a solution that elegantly satisfies all these constraints is one of the most difficult and profoundly creative activities I can imagine. This is work that in some ways has more in common with our artistic colleagues than our scientific ones. Engineers do this creative, challenging work, not the dull, pocket-protector, cubicle stuff of popular myth.

Obviously there is an analytic side to engineering as well as a creative one, and there is an innate conservatism that arises from our responsibility to the public. Like physicians, we must “first do no harm.” That conservatism is always in tension with our creativity; the most original, most imaginative solution is also the most suspect. So after our most creative moments, we put on our skeptic’s hat and subject the idea to careful and rigorous analysis. We try to ferret out all the possible down sides and consider all the ways in which the design might fail. In short, rather than celebrate our creation, we try to find its flaws.

That’s just what we should do, of course. But unfortunately that’s the side of engineering that the general public sees. Ergo, engineers are dull. Nerds! That is, I think, our single biggest problem in attracting the best and brightest to engineering as a profession.

Image building

I believe that one’s creativity is bounded by one’s life experiences. By attracting engineers of different ethnicity, culture, and gender, as well as individuals with broad interests and backgrounds, we increase the diversity of experience.

At a fundamental level, men, women, the handicapped, and racial and ethnic groups all experience a different world. It doesn’t take a genius to see that in this world of globalized commerce, our engineered designs must reflect the culture of an extremely diverse customer base. But it’s deeper than that. It’s not just recognizing that women are not the same size and shape as men or that products have different cultural connotations in other countries. The marketing department can tell you that.

Rather, it’s that the range of options considered by a team lacking diversity will be smaller. It’s that the product that serves a broader international customer base or a segment of this nation’s melting pot or our handicapped may not be found. It’s that constraints will not be understood and options will be left unconsidered. It’s that the elegant solution may not be found.

There is a real economic cost to our lack of diversity. Unfortunately, it’s an opportunity cost that’s measured in design options not considered and needs unstated and hence unfilled. It’s measured in “might-have-beens,” and those costs are very hard to capture in financial terms. But they are very real. Every time we approach an engineering problem with a “pale male” team, we do so with a set of potential solutions excluded, including perhaps the most efficient and elegant. We need to shed our dull image to attract a greater range of creative engineers.

We can begin by asking why we have that image. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect several things. It starts in college; we work our engineering students so hard that they can’t participate in campus life. After struggling with the tension between creativity and conservatism, we tend to show the public only the conservative side in order to win their confidence. We also suffer from a public backlash from the unrealistic expectations that we created in the can-do years that followed World War II. We promised too much, and what we delivered was sometimes perceived as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Whatever the reason, we are seen as dull. But it has not always been that way. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, engineers were heroes in films, novels, and even poetry. Listen to Walt Whitman, “Singing the great achievements of today/Singing the strong light works of engineers.” In most of the world’s countries, engineers still enjoy this type of respect. The dull image of engineering is not preordained!

The National Academy of Engineering is taking some steps to enhance the image of engineers. We have a special program on women in engineering, we cooperate with various minority engineering groups, and we’re launching a program on technological literacy. We also need to reform engineering education. There are many aspects to this, but it is essential to make the creative part of engineering more evident early on. There is no reason to deny engineering students the opportunity to tackle some creative problem solving until they have survived the initiation of two years of math and science.

Creativity and diversity go hand in hand, but engineering seems caught in a destructive feedback cycle. The profession is perceived as dull, which is the antithesis of its actual inherent creativity, and that image repels the diversity that is essential to realizing the full creativity of engineering. We must break that cycle!

Cite this Article

Wulf, Wm. A. “The Image of Engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 2 (Winter 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 2, Winter 1999