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HARRIS POLL SHOWS ENGINEERING REMAINS A “STEALTH PROFESSION” AMONG WOMEN AND MINORITIES
Washington, September 1, 1998 — Amid growing concerns that not enough Americans are pursuing technical careers, a new Harris Poll survey released today shows that the U.S. public feels uninformed about the engineering enterprise and betrays a startling lack of knowledge about engineers” involvement in key areas of American endeavor.
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The Harris Poll survey of “American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering” released this afternoon at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that technology makes a positive contribution to society and that engineers are to be credited with creating economic growth and preserving national security. Beneath this goodwill toward engineers and technology, however, lies a disturbing problem that threatens continued U.S. leadership in engineering — Americans, particularly women, generally feel uninformed about engineers and engineering.
“”The results from this poll help to underscore the critical need for the general public to better understand technology and how it is created — that is, engineering” said NAE President Wm. A. Wulf.”
The Harris Poll was conducted by Louis Harris and Associates in late July and was commissioned by the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES), a Washington-based organization of engineering societies whose membership represents more than one million engineers in the United States. AAES commissioned the survey to better understand how the public views engineering and engineers as it expands its activities in public awareness. One critical reason for improving public awareness of engineering is to address the workforce problems which our nation will face unless greater numbers of women and minorities choose to become engineers.
The Harris Poll survey revealed that 45 percent of Americans feel that they are “not very well informed about engineering and engineers” while another 16 percent stated that they are “not at all well informed about engineering and engineers.” Among women, however, the percentages increased to 55 percent and 23 percent, respectively. While education level correlated positively to the respondents” level of informedness, the majority of college graduates (53 percent) still reported that they are “not very well informed or not at all well informed” about engineering and engineers.
A BALANCED WORKFORCE
AAES Chair Martha Sloan, a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University and the first woman to be elected chair of AAES or any of its predecessor organizations, underscored the significance of the Harris Poll findings: “In an age when technology helps turn fantasy and fiction into reality, engineers have played a pivotal role in developing the technologies that maintain our nation”s economic, environmental and national security. They revolutionized medicine with pacemakers and MRI scanners. They changed the world with the development of television and the transistor, computers and the Internet. They introduced new concepts in transportation, power, satellite communications, earthquake-resistant buildings, and strain-resistant crops by applying scientific discoveries to human needs. Despite these contributions to society, this “stealth profession,” whose membership numbers more than two million in the United States alone, remains largely invisib! le when more than 60 percent of Americans state that they are not well informed about engineers and engineering.”
Sloan continued: “As our nation”s workforce continues to transition from one which is predominantly male and Caucasian to one which will be majority female and African-American, Asian, and Hispanic, the price we pay in our society for engineers having worked in such obscurity may not be known for another generation. But it is clear to me today that if we, as an engineering community, in partnership with the media and our educational system, fail to act now to increase society”s understanding of engineering, particularly among women and minorities, our nation”s economic, environmental, and national security will be threatened.”
Underscoring the importance of this action, Sloan noted that although women comprise 53.7 percent of the undergraduate student population, only 19.4 percent of the students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs are female. Sloan also pointed to recent data published by AAES”s Engineering Workforce Commission (EWC) which revealed that enrollments among African-Americans in undergraduate engineering programs declined in 1997 despite an overall increase in first-year degree programs. These enrollments, however, must be measured against the backdrop of a nationwide decline in the number of students receiving undergraduate engineering degrees over the last decade. Since 1987, the number of bachelor degrees earned in engineering has fallen by more than 14 percent.
“Over the past 30 years, significant strides have been made in equal employment opportunity in the United States and we should be doing much better at reaching women and minorities than these poll results show,” said Delon Hampton, Chairman and CEO of Delon Hampton and Associates. Hampton, incoming president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a councillor of the NAE, is the first African-American to be elected to the highest office in ASCE. “Unfortunately, the evidence shows otherwise,” critiqued Hampton. “Based on the latest EWC enrollment figures and this polling data, it seems that many Americans, especially women and minorities, don”t consider engineering as a field where they can achieve to their maximum potential while utilizing their talents to serve society in the areas they most care about today — the environment, public health and safety, a better quality of life. We must do better at conveying that message if we”re going to maintain the ! qualified engineering workforce we need for our future prosperity.”
PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARD ENGINEERS AND ENGINEERING
Despite the low level of public awareness about engineering, the survey revealed that many parents would be pleased if their children became engineers. When asked this question, “Using a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being extremely displeased to 10 being extremely pleased, if your son or daughter or other family member said they wanted to be an engineer, how pleased would you be?” the mean response was a 9. An earlier Harris Poll conducted in June revealed that engineers hold relatively high prestige compared to other professions but fall considerably below scientists, teachers and physicians.
Joseph Bordogna, acting deputy director of the National Science Foundation and president of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), made the following remarks in response to the Harris Poll results:
“Engineering will be one of the most significant forces in designing continued economic development and success for humankind in a manner that will sustain both the planet and its growing population. Engineers will develop the new processes and products. They will create and manage new systems for civil infrastructure, manufacturing, communications, health care delivery, information management, environmental conservation and monitoring, and everything else that makes modern society function. As major “agents of civilization change,” today”s engineers must think about the larger context in which they pursue their work.” “Yet the AAES/Harris Poll survey reveals that the public, despite its praise for engineers and the belief espoused by many that engineers would make strong leaders, also seem to view engineers with a cynical eye,” said Bordogna.
“We can all agree that the true strength of society resides in its human capital — and especially its engineering workforce,” says Bordogna. “Greater diversification of the engineering workforce and increased technological literacy must be achieved if our nation is to maintain its global leadership in engineering. While engineers are seen as creating economic growth and preserving national security more than scientists or technicians, their efforts to improve our quality of life, protect the environment and save lives are not being acknowledged. If we are to attract our best and brightest students to engineering careers, we must ensure that their concern for human compassion and environmental stewardship as well as their capacity for creating economic wealth is understood and respected by our citizens and institutions. Our ability to improve public understanding of engineering will not only raise the level of interest among our nation”s youth in engineering, but elicit publ! ic support as well for the efforts of these engineers to simultaneously improve our world”s economy and ecology in this post-industrial knowledge-based age we all share.”
PUBLIC PERCEPTION: THE MEDIA AND ENGINEERING
When asked to rate the quality of media coverage of science, technology, engineering, and medical discoveries, more than 69 percent of the survey respondents assigned “fair” or “poor” grades to engineering reporting while less than 3 percent gave the media an “excellent” score. Among college graduates and those with incomes of $75,000 or more, 85 percent and 80 percent of the respondents respectively assigned scores of “fair” and “poor” to the job the media does in covering engineering.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING IS RARELY MADE
On one question in the AAES/Harris Poll that asked which professionals — scientists, technicians, or engineers — respondents “mostly associated” with an activity, engineers were frequently underestimated in their roles. In areas where there exists a strong engineering element such as “working in space,” “developing new forms of energy” and “creating new materials,” scientists were more often cited than engineers.
Sloan noted, “Engineering is sometimes thought of as applied science but engineering is far more. The essence of engineering is design and making things happen for the benefit of humanity. Engineers do basic and applied research. But all too often, engineers who conduct research are generically identified as “scientists” or “researchers.” It is no more appropriate for someone to describe an engineer as a “researcher” as it would be for us to depict a surgeon as a “health care worker.”
American engineers endure a rigorous course of study at more than 300 accredited engineering schools in the United States for the right to be called an engineer; many continue their studies in engineering and other fields to become CEOs, university presidents, physicians, lawyers, and, yes, even astronauts. We must not dilute the value of an engineering degree by using the word “engineer” arbitrarily or frivolously, nor must we consign the word to relative obscurity. We, as an engineering community, must speak with pride about our engineers and our engineering achievements and not allow our profession to be wholly subsumed within the lexicon of “science and technology.” The distinction may be small to some, but if our children believe that engineers are relegated only to driving trains or debugging computer programs, we will have lost whatever progress we made when, 40 years ago, the Mercury 7 transformed the word “engineer” into “hero”.”
The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — USA (IEEE-USA), SPIE — the International Society for Optical Engineering, and the United Engineering Foundation were all cosponsors with AAES in this poll.