Banners for Engineers

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov. 2000

I sat on the beach among the large holiday-weekend crowd, enjoying the last warm sunshine of the summer.  The air smelled of salt and suntan lotion, and was filled with the noises of children splashing, waves crashing, and the background roar of an airplane motor.  An old propeller-driven plane lumbered its way up the beach, tugging behind its banner advertising some beer or other.

No, wait!  This wasn’t a beer plane – the banner advertised the availability of engineering jobs through some website.  I was marveling at this unexpected diversion when it was followed by another plane, whose banner told of the availability of jobs for engineers at a local employer.  “Don’t go to the website of that airplane in front of me,” it said in effect.  “Join the local company.”

Well, this is great -- seeing airplanes fighting over us in the sky above the beaches!  Forget selling beer, we need to recruit engineers!  I glanced sideways at the suntanned beach people next to me.  In my mind I said to them, “That’s me they’re after -- I’m an engineer, you know.”  Actually, I remained quiet, but I sat up a bit with pride.

What a difference a decade makes!  I was remembering back when there were stories of laid-off engineers on Long Island running hot dog stands.  Presumably, the person now running the hot dog stand to my right was not an engineer, though I noticed the way he was staring at the airplane banners.  But today, even though there may still be laid-off engineers, they are besieged with job offers.

So times are good.   While business executives moan over their engineer attrition rates, the engineers themselves trade stories of ever-escalating inducements.  “How many stock options am I offered, and at what price?” they ask.

In fact, times are so good that I know several people, engineering executives, who were ceremonious fired by their companies when their business units dramatically failed.  In each case they became the hottest properties around, and chose among offers of untold promised wealth.  I pondered this as a career development strategy.  Lead your unit into a well-publicized disaster, and have your firing on the front pages of the trade magazines.  Then let the airplanes fight over you.  Choose among CEO positions.  Maybe I should give the conventional warning, however: don’t try this at home.

But let’s not get greedy about this.  The older engineers will remember that we’ve been here before, and we’ve also seen the hard times too.  Those hard times may come again, but it does seem to me that the environment for engineers today feels different than in those previous cycles.  For one thing, the job offers are really out of sight, but there’s something else.  Always before, even in the good times, engineers were bought and sold.  Today it’s the engineers that are calling the shots.

I’ve been writing this column for nineteen years now.  A couple of my earliest columns talked about the public image of engineers as nerds with plastic pocket penholders, deprecatingly called nerd-packs.  No one in the public really knew what engineers did, or seemed to care.  I remember many discussions at IEEE meetings about what we could possibly do to improve the public perception of engineers.  There was even serious consideration of hiring a public relations firm to change this image.  It may have happened, but I’m no longer sure.   I had reservations about this myself, feeling that the case was hopeless.  I despaired of the day that the public would look up to engineers.  It was inconceivable that there would come a time when airplanes would cruise the beaches with banners for engineers.

I have written about my ambivalence when I have been asked my occupation at a cocktail party or even on obscure bureaucratic forms like customs declarations.  To my shame, I’ve sometimes been tempted to say “scientist” or, worse, the meaningless, inflated descriptive, “executive.”  But these days I have no reservations about writing “engineer” on any form that asks my occupation.  Today I’m really proud to be an engineer.

Engineers have always done good and important things for society.  A couple of months ago I wrote about our list of great achievements of the recent century – electrification, electronics, radio and television, the computer, Internet, and so forth.  But in the past these achievements were seldom credited in the public mind with engineers.  Not so anymore.  So what’s different now?

We’re still nerds -- that hasn’t changed.  But now being a nerd is a good thing.  In 1984 the cult movie “Revenge of the Nerds” was ahead of its time, but a good part of the humor in this movie was the incongruity of the little guys and girls beating out the campus jocks and beauties.  It was a joke, because it conflicted with the public’s sense of reality.  Ha, ha!

Well, guess what?  What has changed is that the nerds really did triumph.  Maybe you could argue that it was the result of the ubiquity of personal computers, requiring nearly everyone to know something about technology.  But high technology has always been prevalent in the consumer world.  High fidelity equipment, television sets, VCRs, and other alluring products never put engineers into the spotlight before.

I know this is a rather sad commentary on society, but probably the real reason the public perception is so different is that engineers got rich – really rich.  Not all of us, of course, but enough to provide visibility for all of us.  Forget radio, television, computers, fiber optics, and stuff like that – engineers got rich.  The public perception turned from the faceless engineer in the boiler room to the magazine cover picture of the engineer in the boardroom.  Bill Gates and others like him made the world safe for nerds.

I’m continually amazed to think that I know people, even friends, who were trained just like me, and who share the engineering culture with me, but who have become extremely wealthy through the fruits of our profession.  I’m not even jealous (well, maybe a little!), because they have raised the level of public respect for all of us.  They did what no public relations firm could have done for engineers, and more power to them.

The two airplanes carrying the engineering banners disappeared up the further beaches.  Shucks.  Bring on some more, and lets enjoy it while it lasts!


Robert W. Lucky