In my 50 years in electrical engineering I have never heard of engineers collectively striking. I have also not experienced engineers marketing themselves by educating the community about how engineering impacts on their everyday lives. Engineers never charge for consulting on telephones in answer to queries or requests for advice, and generally underrate themselves to the point of accepting self-satisfaction as the only reward. Their interest lies in conceptualising, synthesising, adding value and producing a quality service, design or product. Pity, but this is the first problem that needs to be acknowledged!
The second problem is that engineers are trained to think independently and innovatively. They are required to think out of the box, not only in synthesising and design, but also in exploring solutions to problems other than engineering. Engineers therefore seldom agree without much wrangling and debate, and are not very comfortable with collaborating to collectively address those issues in the macro arena that affect them most: relevance, recognition and status. This is the second quandary that engineers need to recognise as a limiting characteristic in today’s world.
I have heard the comment by the uninformed, but who have the ‘gift of the gab’, that engineers battle to communicate and that they are technocrats lacking in worldly sophistication. I recall an event where I was addressing 300 Grade 12 learners from different schools in Gauteng to encourage them to take up electrical engineering as a career. I started by asking them to put up their hands if they knew what an electrical engineer does? To my amazement not one hand was raised – and you cannot tell me all of them were shy or overawed by the occasion.
So, considering the problems inherent in the engineer’s make-up and the low appreciation they enjoy – what is the solution?
I am pleased to say that I had a serendipitous meeting with civil engineers the other day, and they have a concept that tells me they, like me, are worried about the pending crisis if nothing is done to raise the level of awareness of the important part engineering plays in our everyday lives to keep us safe and sound – but even more important: what engineering contributes to the economy of the country.
Their concept is phrased in the word Civilution. Of course, my immediate reaction as an electrical engineer was that I would have preferred a word like ‘electrocution’ or ‘electrodynamics’ or something to erase the idea that all engineering is civil – but on reflection this would be sour grapes, because the concept is exciting, and if accepted by the other engineering disciplines (bearing in mind my comments above about engineers never easily agreeing), can be the vehicle to address the problems and challenges that the engineering fraternity is facing. Or should I rather say the enormous challenges the country is facing that engineers can address?
To understand all the details, I would need to interact more with the civil engineers, but the concept appears to me to be particularly fitting to address the issues I have outlined.
Engineers of all disciplines need closer collaboration, and on matters where there is agreement. So, effort should be put into establishing common ground and concreting this in a Memorandum of Understanding (forgive me for using a civil metaphor like ‘concrete’, because I cannot think of an electrical one).
Engineers need to speak with one voice. This essentially is borne out by the fact that the community, and dare I say decision-makers, do not appreciate the uniqueness of the different engineering disciplines. My experience, as outlined above with 300 scholars not knowing, refers.
This is the engineers’ finest hour, and now, more than ever, is the time to get together, to work together on a structured approach to produce position papers, strategic plans, and most importantly, leaders to take this to government as a solution to the dilemma of engineers, and as an illustration of what opportunities will be missed if this engineering contribution is ignored.
It is not a secret that many engineers in their current work situation suffer depression, lack enthusiasm, and feel (and are) disempowered by structures that nullify their decisions and recommendations, but not their responsibility and accountability. This must change now, or the community will suffer the consequences in waning safety measures and unforeseen incidents detrimental to their wellbeing. The need for self-satisfaction that I mentioned above is still important to engineers, and sadly drives them to seek other ways to earn a living. The training of engineers is such that they quite easily adapt to change, which is evident by the number of engineers employed in the financial sector, to the detriment of the engineering sector.
Civilution is a new era of engineers in solidarity – restoring their place in society and bringing into focus the importance of what engineering means to South Africa.
I for one am all for it and I urge all voluntary associations to take this concept of Civilution to their executives, and to support an initiative that brings engineers together – for once!
Stan Bridgens Pr Eng
SA Institute of Electrical Engineers