The creators of technology aren't feeling very appreciated these days. Their jobs are being sent offshore, pay raises are paltry at best and neighbors think they're geeks.
Equally dispiriting is the fact that most engineers in the United States remember a different time, when they were valued by employers and respected by others. Those days seem long ago to many of the 4,083 respondents to EE Times' Insight 2005 online survey. Conducted in August, it explored engineers' attitudes about work, politics, religion and other topics.
"We just don't have any class or status," said one engineer at a bioscience firm. "Someone with a bachelor's or master's in electrical engineering or software, he's just a flunky. There is no respect for them."
Public attitudes are reflected in the perceptions of Google co-founders Lawrence Page, who received an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, and Sergey Brin, who earned a master's in computer science at Stanford. They are feted more for being instant billionaires than for their technological innovations.
Adding insult to injury, engineers seem to have it better in China and India, the two nations seen as the largest threats to U.S. technological leadership, according to our survey. "People over there [in China] in engineering probably will be treated more respectfully than here," said one design engineer. "Over there it's more concentrated in science and math than here. People tend to be more respected when you become a scientist."
"This is a wake-up call," said Kerry McClenahan, a principal with McClenahan Bruer Communications (Portland, Ore.), co-developer of the survey with EE Times. "Engineers believe the profession is undervalued. Society in general labels them one-dimensional geeks and nerds. We think this is partly why kids are not going into engineering. The average age of engineers has been creeping up, and it does not look like we're preparing replacements."
The next generation of engineers is another concern uncovered by the survey. Where will the newbies come from? Probably overseas, according to Insight 2005. China, Japan, Russia, India and the European Union all graduate more engineers than the United States, according to the National Science Foundation. Moreover, most Insight 2005 respondents said they believe foreign high schools and colleges are doing a better job than U.S. schools in educating tomorrow's engineers.
Indeed, 65 percent called improving the U.S. educational system a priority. "If this country wants to continue to be a mover and a shaker and a leader in the world, you won't get that by having a country that is mostly all gardeners or people working at Wendy's," said another design engineer. "Right now, it seems like, what the heck do I want to go into this profession for? There's no money in it; there's nothing but layoffs and it's all being outsourced to India."
Fifty-six percent of respondents said they are concerned about outsourcing (see graphic, page 30). Only 10 percent believe the United States will maintain its position as the world's technology leader.
Even the tradition of encouraging one's children to take up science is weakening. One software development manager said he wouldn't recommend engineering as a profession to his kids. "They're living in the wrong country," he said.
Engineers believe they have more brains and more-demanding jobs than other workers, but receive less support from employers. "Engineers are smarter," said respondent James Boros, an engineering consultant in Albuquerque, N.M. "I think most have IQs between 120 and 140. I am up there too."
The scope of the Insight 2005 survey provides a broad picture of engineers' personal beliefs and concerns, and shows how these compare with other Americans'. One finding: Engineers think of themselves and their fellow engineers as different from nonengineers. For example, 84 percent of those surveyed consider themselves physically "plain" and 55 percent call themselves "introverted," the survey found, but 48 percent consider their nonengineer colleagues plain and 14 percent introverted.
In addition, only 39 percent of engineers called themselves extroverted, but considered 81 percent of their nonengineer colleagues outgoing; 12 percent see themselves as "stylish," but they characterized 49 percent of their nonengineer colleagues that way.
"Having faith in God" is important to 44 percent of surveyed engineers, the study found, vs. 63 percent of college-educated males between 21 and 65, according to the General Social Survey conducted by the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan.
"I am one of the engineers that acknowledge God but am still progressive technologically," said Brad Culter, an architect with Hewlett-Packard Co. in Houston. "I believe all inventions require a kind of 'magical thinking' a willingness to disbelieve something that is obviously true now, and believe something else. This childlike 'pretending' opens the mind to creative solution concepts."