Engineers are trusted by the US public as strong leaders whose work serves to bolster economic growth, according to a Harris poll for the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). They can also earn a lot of money: well-qualified graduates often attract five-figure ‘signing-on bonuses’ from desperate employers.
Yet industry leaders are alarmed that a robust public image and generous salary structure are not attracting smart young people into the profession.
The National Academy of Engineering, an elite professional body, is worried about a fall-off in the number of young people entering engineering schools over the past decade.
‘Despite all the money, the recruitment of students is still going south,’ says William Wulf, NAE president. ‘That’s why I think the problem is serious.’
The Harris survey of public perceptions shows a pattern which Wulf wants to reverse. ‘We fail to communicate that engineering is an enormously creative profession,’ he says. ‘What the outside world sees is the analytical, rather than the creative, side of engineering.’
On a crude measure of engineering’s prestige in the US, Wulf has little to worry about. More than 70% of people say engineers have ‘very great’ or ‘considerable’ prestige a rating that puts engineers near policemen and military officers in the top of the league, well above lawyers, bankers or ‘businessmen’.
Yet the detail of the Harris survey includes clues as to why young people are forsaking a profession which seems revered but not loved. People trust engineers to lead and make money, but not to do good.
In public service, the scientist takes credit for what most engineers would regard as their achievements. A total of 72% think scientists improve the quality of life; only 16% think engineers do. A total of 78% think scientists protect the environment; only 13% think engineers do.
Astonishingly, from an engineer’s perspective, 65% accredit scientists with saving lives, while only 6% believe engineers do.
‘The general public thinks that we’re pretty good folks but they don’t know what we do,’ concludes Wulf.
The NAE and AAES are convinced a misconception of engineering is driving young people especially women and minorities away from the profession, even when its high financial rewards are known.
It is a quandary more subtle, and therefore more daunting, than the general undervaluation afflicting the UK profession.