Policy Implications

In reflecting on the findings from this research, perhaps the most important observation is that there is no “one size fits all” approach or policy that will “fix” the engineering profession or help to ensure retention. That said the findings do suggest a number of changes that could help to re-shape the field to enhance the experiences of individual engineers and also improve the products of the profession.

Educational Context

  1. Improvement in engineering education through an emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills. In engineering programs we are training some of our brightest and most dedicated students, but we train them in such a way that extreme dedication to work and a focus on the technical is internalized. What could help alter the profession is understanding of power relations in society and the extent to which an emphasis on individual responsibility distracts and discourages us from challenging such relations. 
  2. Rethinking the form of problem-solving students are taught during engineering education. Participants discussed how during their education and work experiences linear and rigid ways of dealing with problems dominated. In a profession that emphasizes innovation, creativity is something that should be embraced and both students and qualified professionals encouraged to explore. Whether this encouragement is through the study of art and design, or working in teams that involve people with multiple forms of training, engineers who hold more creative and diverse perspectives will benefit the profession. The benefits of this diversity will not only be found in the development of the best tools for the future, but also through perspectives that are able to question the status quo of the profession. 

Workplace

One of the most problematic aspects of the culture of engineering was the often hostile and aggressive work environment. Changing this environment, while potentially challenging, could benefit all workers. The “old boys club” may work for a few, but this overtly hostile, assertive and aggressive leadership style functions as a barrier to a range of people including women, visible minorities, newly-trained engineers, and some more technically-oriented engineers. Reforming this type of interactional style is neither expensive nor demanding – the fact that these types of behaviors would be unacceptable in the majority of work environments reflects this. And with a better understanding of the culture’s implications for a range of people and support from organization leaders, it could be broadly accepted. 

  1. Reform the long hours culture. Throughout the interviews engineers reported facing a culture of extreme pressure for long hours, commitment to one’s organization above all else, and a dedication to efficient and cost-effective solutions.  While being very productive and profitable for employers, this culture also creates stressed workers on the edge of burn out. And as the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico reflects creates opportunities for errors with drastic consequences. Indeed the demands, enabled by technology, appear to be growing. To truly challenge this culture, attention needs to be brought to it as a way of working, not the only and certainly not the best way.   

  2. On an organizational level, a positive sentiment toward work life balance is not sufficient, nor is having policies in place that are not respected or which people are penalized for using.  Commitment, particularly for women and younger men, was noticeably enhanced by organizational policies that supported work-life balance and a positive, social work environment.  It is interesting that the policies participants called for often did not involve radical changes. Participants typically did not demand flex work, longer holidays, or childcare at work. Rather they talked of yoga and exercise classes being offered, support of socializing outside work hours, birthday cakes and coffee, free parking, and expectations of working “only” forty to fifty hours a week.   That these concerns were the participants’ focus is important because it points to the fact organizations could take relatively small steps to enhance employee satisfaction greatly. 

  3. There is the need for the professional engineering association to continue to build in ways to protect its members as they speak out as professionals and, potentially, in conflict with corporate interests. Within the professional association there is a clear emphasis on the ethical responsibilities of being an engineer, yet no whistleblower or other protection is offered – nor being rallied for – by the professional association. A number of engineers reported frustration at the limited voice engineers hold in society, such that they are not respected or called upon to speak on the topics where they are experts. The profession’s lack of autonomy due to its close links to the corporate world has created a system in which the possibility of being an ethical engineer is curtailed. Overall, participants, even those who left the profession, reflected very positively on the code of ethics and the importance of the engineering ring, and embraced the profession’s dedication to safety and making a difference. It is now up to the professional association to use this commitment to spur change and reform in the profession. The professional association has the ability to work for legislative reform to protect engineers who are whistleblowers, to encourage universities to emphasize ethics in their courses, and to incorporate into professional development requirements that involve ethical responsibility. By moving beyond “personalizing professionalism” to integrating professionalism as a broader field-based goal, the profession may also begin to play a role in changing society.