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Left in the Dust

Engineers, Have We Left Ourselves In The Dust?

by Terry V. Molloy, PE

(Reprint from April, 2004 Transmitter)

The other day I was reading about all the engineering jobs going to India, China and other far away places where the labor is cheap.  Of course other jobs are going there as well but that is not the issue here.  

Did you know that about 100 years ago Mechanical Engineers made $5,000 per year?  Now that may not sound like much today, but it was a lot of money then.  It was certainly on par with what doctors made and more than what most lawyers made at the time.  What has changed and why?

Before we go there let’s look at our current situation with the professional engineering societies in the United States.  I have heard that the ASME is having serious financial problems and is making changes to its organizational structure as is the Chemical Engineering Society.  My apologies if my information is incorrect, but it is very consistent with the problems facing the ISA, so I have no reason to question its validity.  

What has been the primary focus of our professional technical societies in this county?  I can tell you one major effort; protect United States Companies market share by participating on international standards bodies to insure the new standards do not result in high retooling cost to US manufacturers and other similar maladies.  Prior to that our efforts were focused on developing standards to reduce costs and level the playing field for all equipment suppliers.  Yes, for engineers it has always been about keeping the price low for the products we produce and THE SERVICES WE PROVIDE!  Our professional technical societies have reinforced that mission year after year.  I have been part of that effort for many years and now I am seriously questioning the wisdom of continuing in that direction.

How many of our citizens are going to India for medical treatments?  Do we let Lawyers from China or Japan practice in the US without first having passed the Bar Exam IN THE STATE THEY WILL PRACTICE IN?  You may say that this is a consumer safety issue, we need to be sure the doctors and lawyers are properly trained to protect the client’s interest.  I agree that doctors and lawyers must be properly trained and that training must be verified through a standardized testing program for the protection of the public.  BUT!  I also believe that the work of engineers is more critical from a public safety prospective that that of a lawyer.  When we screw up people can die and a board of peers cannot pass it off as “the risk one takes with that surgery” or as most lawyers will say, “you never know how the judge will rule.”  

My point is that our professional technical societies should be developing and promoting requirements for professional engineers to practice engineering in the same way that doctors are credentialed.  We all know that the average engineering college graduate is not qualified to perform complex engineering design work just like a new intern is not qualified to perform brain surgery.  But with time and experience the engineer like the doctor will gain the knowledge to do expert work.  Elsewhere in this issue there is an article by Tom Stout that discusses some alternatives to the current way engineers are licensed or not licensed.  Read that article and give Tom and me your thoughts.

For my part I think we should be doing much more to protect the technology we have developed as well as the personal information of our citizens.  Computer software contains the information necessary to design many of the products that give the US its competitive edge in world markets (and in the military arena) and we are sending that software out of the country for continued development because the labor is cheaper?  What is wrong with this picture?  That coupled with the fact that many companies are “outsourcing” their customer service function to countries that do not have the same restrictions on personal information afforded us here at both the state and federal level.   Identity theft is a real problem in this country; how much worse will it get when someone is doing it from overseas?

Our professional technical societies should be working to protect our intellectual property, not for their use to fund society activities and staff, but for the security of the Country, American jobs, and the safety of the public.  We should have our societies working just as hard to protect our professions as the AMA or the Bar Associations work to protect their respective professions.  As private citizens we should be writing our legislators telling them we do not want any of our personal information released to anyone without our written consent and that no company may make certain information, like Social Security Numbers, Birth Dates, etc., available to service companies outside of the US borders.  

What are your thoughts?

Terry Molloy

3/31/04 GJG