Two recent pieces of mail have made a strong impression on me. Both
concern engineering, but their tone and tenor are almost diametrically
opposed. One is a press release about National Engineers Week, to be
held February 14 to 20. It comes from the public relations department
of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the "lead
sponsor" of the event. There are numerous other organizations
involved, and they form a long list of prestigious technical
societies, influential government organizations, and large
corporations. The group represents the closest thing we have to an
engineering establishment.
The other piece of mail is the most recent copy of a newsletter called
American Engineer, published by a nonprofit group called The American
Engineering Association. The guiding lights of this organization are
a small group of engineers, some working and some unemployed, whose
names and affiliations do not exactly place them at the epicenter of
industrial, governmental, or academic power.

The IEEE press release tells how National Engineers Week will
celebrate the contributions engineering makes to American life. "Our
future depends upon the minds and hands of engineers," it proclaims.
The pronouncement then goes on to describe "a series of major events
designed both to highlight the achievements of engineers' minds and
hands, and to enlist them in furthering the education of tomorrow's
technological pioneers."

The message continues in this vein, sounding rather bombastic and out
of touch with the real world, especially the one portrayed by articles
in American Engineer. Reading that publication on a regular basis
suggests that a lot of engineers, rather than "celebrating their
contributions" to national well-being, are more inclined to be
thinking of immediate and less lofty wolf-at-the-door concerns.
The dose of reality in issue after issue of the newsletter makes it
clear that many engineers represent a beleaguered force suffering from
any number of adversities. These include the collapse of formerly
blue-chip corporations, bone-and-muscle cuts in defense spending, all
topped off by what looks like subtle or even blatant age discrimination.
Maybe National Engineers Week is fundamentally a good thing. But
somewhere in the celebration there should be room to talk about
engineering as well as manufacturing jobs being sent offshore. And it
should at least mention what hollow victories automotive transplants
represent because they don't do much to help engineering employment.
Sponsors might even ponder whether or not youngsters should be
encouraged to seek technical careers. Perhaps a shortage of engineers
would be good for the profession overall.

Instead of conducting a Pollyanna-type event, the establishment ought
to consider taking a cold look at what has happened to engineering as
a career in the past 20 years. The sense of travail portrayed in
American Engineer seems to reflect reality more accurately than the
call for celebration from the IEEE public relations department.

Ronald Khol, Editor