It’s the image, not the pay

Senior members of the Clinton administration have joined industry and professional luminaries to launch The Engineering Alliance an umbrella group which aims to unite engineering societies with universities and industrial corporations in a public relations offensive. Its first concern is the decline in the number of school leavers who are opting to take engineering courses […]

Senior members of the Clinton administration have joined industry and professional luminaries to launch The Engineering Alliance an umbrella group which aims to unite engineering societies with universities and industrial corporations in a public relations offensive.

Its first concern is the decline in the number of school leavers who are opting to take engineering courses at universities. The figure has plunged by about one-fifth since 1986.

The leadership of US engineering fears the profession holds little appeal to women or minorities the growing population in US colleges and young people are turning away.

One of the reasons for this, the alliance says, is the bad or non-existent coverage of engineering in the US press. ‘Those with a stake in engineering have come forward to address the lack of public understanding of engineering, particularly as it relates to young people,’ says Greg Schuckman of the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES), and director of the alliance.

A Harris poll for the AAES last year showed the profession was held in moderate esteem by the public, but the creative side of engineering was not appreciated. The recruitment problem appears to be based on image, rather than substance, since engineering students can attract extraordinarily high starting salaries and expect excellent career prospects.

The co-chairs of the alliance, which is seeking money from corporations and universities for its PR offensive, are the chairman of ITT Industries, the chair of the AAES, and the president of Georgia Institute of Technology.

Although privately funded, the initiative has the support of the White House: President Clinton’s science and technology adviser, Neal Lane, hosted its launch at the administration’s headquarters, the Old Executive Office Building.

In a nation which values individual initiative above collective action, the engineering profession is fragmented. The government has sought to unite it in the past, setting up an engineering council which evolved into the AAES. But some big societies, including the automotive and manufacturing engineers, are not in AAES.

Professional accreditation of engineers is not such a big issue here as in the UK. But attempts are under way to raise professional standards: US civil engineers, for example, have proposed that students take a general engineering degree, then specialise at masters level.

But the most pressing issue is one of public image. The main US newspapers ignored the launch of the alliance on 23 February: the PR offensive aims to reverse their nonchalance.

Colin Macilwain