My purposes in writing this blog are threefold: introduce the recently released Engineering Competency Model, describe some of its immediate uses in engineering education and practice, and consider some of its long-term implications in relation to other efforts.
The ECM was prepared by the federal Department of Labor with major help from the American Association of Engineering Societies. As an AAES member, ASCE participated in the project, and I was invited by ASCE to be its representative on the subject matter expert group that advised AAES over the nearly two years it took to complete.
The ECM includes five tiers, with essentially all of Tiers 1 through 4 intended to be applicable to all of engineering. Tier 5 is available for any engineering discipline that wants to add competencies specific to its specialized area. Note the breadth of technical and nontechnical topics and compare them with the education and prelicensure requirements of today’s engineers. Do you see a gap? I do.
Immediate uses of the model
First, the Engineering Competency Model is an important resource that can be used for a number of purposes:
• Guide engineering education and subsequent lifelong engineering practice
• Inform prospective engineering students
• Assess engineering curricula and those who teach within them
• Upgrade continuing education and training programs
• Prepare job descriptions
• Recruit and retain qualified personnel
• Assist those who supervise and/or mentor engineers
• Establish individual professional development goals
• Stimulate engineering accreditation and licensure discussions
• Enhance criteria of specialty certification boards
• Support engineering societies in preparing discipline-specific bodies of knowledge
Very broadly, the ECM can be used to help prepare engineers to function effectively in a rapidly changing world.
Related efforts, long-term implications
Participation in the ECM project reminded me of one of my evolving observations. Whenever a group of conscientious engineers takes the time, with open future-oriented minds, to collaboratively and thoughtfully think about their profession’s future in our rapidly changing world and then document the results, the products tend to be aspirational. That is, these focused temporary groups inevitably define a professional engineer of the future who has an attributes–profile beyond that of today’s engineer.
Recent examples of reports of such collaborative and thoughtful groups within ASCE are The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025 (2007) and Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century, Second Edition (2008). Some examples from outside ASCE are the National Academy of Engineering’s The Engineer of 2020 (2004), Environmental Engineering Body of Knowledge (2009), produced by what is now the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES), and NSPE’s Engineering Body of Knowledge (2013). More formal education is recommended or implicit in all of these reports, and these are just the results of recent studies. Earlier ones conducted during the last century had similar recommendations.
In informal settings, when senior engineers who serve as managers in the business and government sectors freely discuss younger and even middle-level engineers, they inevitably express general satisfaction with the engineers’ basic technical competence. Just as inevitably they express dissatisfaction with the engineers’ nontechnical or professional practice knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs). The engineers come up short in communication, project management, business fundamentals, marketing, and legal KSAs. These essential KSAs should be part of their education! Formal education must do a better job of meeting expanding needs. And these senior engineers are talking about today’s engineers in today’s professional and business environment. If you asked these executives to look forward a decade or so, they would be even more concerned about the adequacy of an engineer’s nontechnical KSAs.
Bottom line: Collaborative groups of engineers conclude that the engineer of the future – and not just civil engineers – needs a wider range of KSAs, and accomplishing that requires a broader and deeper formal education. The ECM is another reminder.
A few questions
In all this, some fundamental questions come to mind about preparing engineers: If the engineer of the future needs to be very different from the engineer of today, and if creating that engineer requires a broader and deeper education, why do so many engineers and their professional societies still define the basic education as the bachelor’s degree? Why is most of engineering apparently satisfied with being the only profession with such a low education requirement? How do we justify continued use of a nearly century-old education model to prepare engineers for functioning effectively in the 21st century? Why don’t we, across our profession, want to bring engineering up to the minimal education bar for licensure (master’s degree) required by essentially all professions?
As for attracting bright and motivated young people to engineering, how can we explain that engineering has the shortest length of formal education of all mainline professions? What smart and aspiring high school student would see that as a strength?
Consider this story (which doesn’t prove a thing but caused me to begin to get a fresh perspective about 25 years ago): I worked as the dean of an exclusively undergraduate engineering college and was meeting with a prospective engineering student and her mother. Wisely, they were researching and visiting engineering colleges. This high school student was prepared. She asked, “How long does it take to earn an engineering degree here?” I proudly said “four years” (we tracked this as one of our metrics and the average was precisely 4.05 years with a very small standard deviation). My pride suffered a setback when she said this: “If it only takes four years, it can’t be worth much.”
What are the best and brightest high school students asking today about engineering and other professions, and what are they thinking about the answers? Assume some of them don’t like what they learn about engineering, especially its low formal education requirements and what that might mean for their futures. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for us, they have many options in the form of professions with higher formal education and preparation expectations – options like accounting, architecture, audiology, dentistry, law, medicine, occupational therapy, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy, physician’s assistant, psychiatry, psychology, and veterinary medicine.
Some of us complain, Rodney Dangerfield style, that “engineers don’t get no respect.” Who is doing this to us? Not those other professions. We are doing it to ourselves. We are our own worst enemy.
Proudly, as a civil engineer, I applaud the ASCE Board of Direction for adopting Policy Statement 465 in 1998, which calls for a master’s degree in engineering or equivalent as a condition for future licensure. As a member of the broader engineering profession, I am embarrassed to note that no other engineering discipline has taken that forward-looking position and some have opposed it.
I am encouraged to learn that the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, the group that represents state engineering licensing boards, recently approved a position statement that supports the need for a master’s degree or equivalent in the future.
What do you think?
Okay, enough of my questions, which reveal my growing frustration with engineering’s decades of passivity and inaction. Clearly, I hope that my questions will generate answers, maybe action … and, if not, better questions. Perhaps I’m wrong and the engineering profession is doing just fine and is well-prepared for the future. What do you think?